'Big Lake Big City' at the Lookingglass Theatre ★★½

David Schwimmer introduces scenes from Keith Huff's "Big Lake Big City", playing at Lookingglass Theatre through Aug. 11, 2013. Schwimmer, the former "Friends" star and longtime Lookingglass ensemble member, is the director for this play.

“Big Lake Big City,” a wildly ambitious and staggeringly unwieldy new Keith Huff comedic pot-boiler set in a town near you, features such famous Chicago attractions as a county morgue wherein pathologists play golf with severed heads, a couple caught in flagrante delicto in a crummy Lincoln Avenue motel and then burned to a crisp, a precious talking head that resides as sculpture in a Lake Point Tower condo and narrates these entire proceedings, and a construction worker who uses a baseball cap to cover up the titanium screwdriver that someone has helpfully planted in his skull. And if, like me, you are a fan of the helpfully named East of Edens diner at 6350 N. Cicero Ave., well, let's just say that particular eatery-with-a-past will never quite seem the same again after time spent in the company of this bit of nouveau Midwestern pulp fiction.

Huff, the hugely talented author of the Chicago cop drama “A Steady Rain” and, more recently, a writer for “Mad Men” and “House of Cards,” has crammed what could be an entire TV mini-series into a play that ranges around the different neighborhoods and socio-economic strata of Chicago like an inquisitive “L” train that has leaped its own tracks. If you are a sucker for zany, deadpan Chicago noir, you'll have plenty of laughs at the work of a writer who has the underbelly of his town down cold (Huff is related to a former police commander). But to say that many competing styles are in play in this particular theatrical attraction is a bit like saying that present-day Navy Pier, one of the play's main themes and settings, is a visual hodgepodge. David Schwimmer's no-holds-barred production, a refreshing change from Lookingglass earnestness, is never dull and has moments of real comedic inspiration, judiciously applied to the warped and to the local. But, especially with actors switching roles, it's not always easy to follow or believe.

Believability in comedy, even pitch-black farce, is a funny thing, and in that crucial regard “Big Lake Big City” remains a worthy work in progress. If the rules are clear, we're perfectly willing to buy that the dude with the encumbrance in the skull could walk into a travel agency and request a trip to Disney World (once his screwdriver gets removed — we're told it's a bit like unskewering a kebab).

But I was still bugged by other instances. A guy claiming to have found someone's ticket to Frankfurt in the car — who carries aroundhas airline tickets these days? And while it's funny to see the aforementioned fried-up couple still in a lovemaking position (charred dummies are well-used), there was a little voice in my head saying they would have slipped off each other. In this staging, I also didn't buy Thomas J. Cox's insurance investigator as not noticing (as the plot demands) when his marks leave a room. And then there's the way the vice detective is still assigned to a case that involves his own wife (played by Katherine Cunningham), a former perp whom he met while cleaning up the world of professional escorts. One believes the latter part, but not the first.

It might seem churlish to complain about realism in a piece featuring such screwball antics. But it's symptomatic of the work that Huff and Schwimmer have yet to do on their ambitious show. Huff builds his plot around disparate groups of characters: an affluent couple of MDs in Lake Point Tower, a pair of Chicago cops in the violent-crimes squad, a couple of Latino brothers struggling to escape their pasts. The detective's wife ends up in bed with someone from one of the other plot strands, and, well, things strive to connect like some whacked-out episode of “The Wire.” But unlike the best cable dramas, “Big Lake Big City” lacks a clear central protagonist. Is it Philip R. Smith's Detective Bastion Podaris? Kareem Bandealy's nefarious but determined doctor? Eddie Martinez's screwdriver-challenged Stewart Perez? One needs to rise above the others, to become the Tony Soprano or the Hildy Johnson of this particular enterprise, if only to give us a guy or gal with whom we can cast our lot. Maybe that chatty head is not the best narrator, not unless he has more to say.

The other issue is one of very different kinds of acting: Smith's performance is very internalized and pained; Danny Goldring's cop is straight-up minimalist noir; Cunningham's femme fatale is vampish; Beth Lacke's TV doctor is broadly comic; Martinez is emotional and honest, as is the understated Wendy Mateo, who plays a love interest; Anthony Fleming III changes with his character. Some stylistic variance is desirable in such a romp, perhaps, and many of these performances have potent moments. But consistency matters, and truth is always the best choice. Here, it does not always feel as if everyone inhabits the same world. And in Act 2, the plotting does not yet fully track. In a show such as this, structured partly as a caper and partly as a whodunnit mystery, the worst thing that can come to pass is that the audience checks out of the central narrative question. That's what happened Saturday night, in some dark corners of the theater at least, so Huff and Schwimmer need to better take us by the hand and keep us more invested in one or more of their surely juicy dramatic dilemmas. And that requires not changing the rules on us too many times.

I hope that works gets done. “Big Lake Big City” — staged on an exceptionally funny and creative setting from Sibyl Wickersheimer (she builds one of those Chicago benches with ads into the seating area, and takes a lot of aptly cacophonous visual cues from Navy Pier) — is a refreshingly ambitious and juicy piece that Huff, a master of small thrillers, clearly is using to stretch himself. Not everything works in Schwimmer's production, but it's still an enjoyably irreverent enterprise that will, I think, tickle some folks even as it drives other crazy. Set the rules, tell the story clearly, make the acting truthful, make every scene in this wacky world more detailed and thus more believable. If all that gets done, this thing could get some legs to go with its plethora of messed-up heads.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through Aug. 11

Where: Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave.

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

Tickets: $36-$70 at 312-337-0665 or lookingglasstheatre.org
CHICAGO

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