Wed. May 18, 2011 12:00 AM
by John Olson
It seems the world of the people who work in casinos must be quite different from the one most of us inhabit. Inside, with no natural sunlight, there's no difference between day and night—just the never-changing environment of artificial light and sounds. And, as a world built on the promise of quick and easy wealth, it's easy to see how those inside could lose their way, or at the very least be following a different set of guideposts. Playwright Jon Steinhagen sets up this milieu convincingly in his world premiere play Aces, which is concerned with the lives of some Las Vegas casino employees in 1975 who, after running a small-time scam at their blackjack tables for several years, have to decide whether or not to keep it going when one of their accomplices dies unexpectedly. The scheme required four dealers plus the pit boss and the floor manager to be in the scam and the remaining conspirators must decide whether or not the new dealer—a woman, no less—can be trusted to join with them in it.
The surviving five members of this little gang each have their own demons to deal with as well. One of the dealers, Duke (Joseph Stearns), is a compulsive gambler owing serious money to the mob. Another dealer, Pete (Philip Winston), is a shy 34-year-old just trying to break out of the clutches of his controlling, abusive and alcoholic older brother—the pit boss Jack (Steinhagen). Long-haired aging hippie Garrett (Aaron Snook) is reclusive, living in a trailer outside the city and communicating with his partners in crime only as much as absolutely necessary. Their leader is the 60-year-old floor manager Lloyd (Vincent Lonergan), trying to hang on in the only world he knows, even as it changes beyond recognition. Just outside their circle is the cocktail waitress Linda (Elizabeth Bagby), divorced from Duke as well as the guy she married after him and now involved with Garrett. Linda's looking for a better life but remains loyal to this family of sorts.
After Samantha (Simone Roos) is hired to replace the deceased dealer, Lloyd charges the team with getting to know her and seeing if she can be trusted to join in and keep their scheme in operation. This seems to set up the play's proposition pretty cleanly, but Steinhagen takes the story in a different direction. Samantha is agreeable to meeting individually with each of the men socially and learns more about each of them than they do of her. She's kind and supportive—always having cash, or a car, when they don't, and though she becomes romantically involved with only one of them, she helps them all (Linda as well) deal with their issues and move on with their lives. There's no tension around Samantha—she's good to the group throughout and is never threatening to them. You wonder if she's hiding something. Is she an undercover investigator hired to unravel the guys' scam? Or, what seems more probable, an angel sent to help out these misfits? The resolution of their problems is ultimately too neat to be satisfying—even a climactic gamble which will impact the lives of three of the characters offers little suspense.
Director Ronan Marra and company do a fine job of establishing time and place in Signal's black box space. Through pantomime and sound effects (by Anthony Ingram) they create the illusion of a casino floor. The team also places the action in a variety of settings, from dingy apartments to an all-night coffee shop, with the help of Melania Lancy's unit set and Mark Hurni's lighting design. Jenilee Houghton's costumes capture the tackiness of '70s style and casino uniforms perfectly.
The performances are all solid, with Winston and Lonergan the best of the bunch. Winston makes a sympathetic and believable man-boy while, on the other end of the maturity scale, Lonergan's Lloyd has a been-there, done-that resignation but is still determined to hang on as a player for a while yet. Bagby gives Linda a touching weariness, and, while Roos' Samantha is smart, warm and likable, she remains as enigmatic as Steinhagen has written her. Steinhagen, oddly enough, seems to have less of a grip on his own character than you'd expect from the man who created it. Jack's language and history seems to suggest a tough, working-class background, but Steinhagen's performance allows that to come through only intermittently. As the mostly silent Garrett, Snook is given little to say, but he might have found some ways to flesh out the character. Stearns' Duke has the necessary arrogance, but he seemed to work a little too hard for it and also fails to show the fear and vulnerability we'd expect of someone in Duke's precarious position.
There are some good ideas here, like setting the story in 1975. The mid-seventies were a time of transition for Las Vegas, when new mega-hotels with theme-park concepts (like Caesar's Palace and Circus Circus) had already started to supplant the older casino-hotels and women like Samantha were just beginning to get hired as dealers. Beyond giving the play a fun and retro setting, this era provides a metaphor for the situational changes Steinhagen's characters must respond to and the life changes they must make. It's a tall order, though, to create six interesting and original characters and have them all experience life-altering experiences that are cleanly completed in some 95 minutes. The piece seems to need either a tightening and focus on just a few characters, or expansion of the play and to give greater tension between Samantha and the others. As it is, Steinhagen and company earn high marks for artfully bringing us into a behind-the-scenes look at a fascinating place and time, but we need to find the characters and their journeys as fascinating as their world.
Aces will play through Saturday, June 18, 2011 at the Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice Ave., Chicago, IL. For tickets, call 773-347-1350 or visit www.signalensemble.com.
Photo: Vincent Lonergan (photo by: Johnny Knight)