Time and place are crucial to Laura Eason’s The Undeniable Sound of Right Now: the time is 1992; the place is Hank’s Bar, a divey rock ‘n’ roll club in a Chicago neighborhood one heartbeat away from gentrifying. But while the physical elements (John McDermott’s authentically grimy set, decked with music posters, and Lindsay Jones’s sound design, in particular) have a genuine specificity, the play itself doesn’t ever feel authentically of that time and place–or of anyplace. In trying to capture a moment of cultural shift–from artist-centered, performance-driven rock music to recombined, postmodern, audience-driven DJ culture–Eason seems to capture both cultures in only the most superficial way.
Hank’s is a Chicago institution, the tiny club where every great band of the past twenty-five years played before, during, and after they made it big. (The script name-drops a vast array of bands, from KISS to Fleetwood Mac to The Clash to Material Issue to Nirvana right before they became stars.) Hank (Jeb Brown) himself, the proprietor, a musician who turned his gifts to talent-spotting, is pretty close to being an institution himself, whether he likes it or not. His twenty-two-year-old daughter, Lena (Margo Seibert), was almost literally raised in the club; she grew up in one of the two apartments above the bar and now lives in the other one, formerly occupied by her father’s ex-wife, Bette (Lusia Strus), and now helps to run it, doing everything from marketing to bartending to fending off their cartoonishly lecherous landlord’s (Chris Kipiniak) attempts to raise the rent. Hank’s is approaching its twenty-fifth anniversary, and time may be running out: on their occupancy of this rundown building in a neighborhood no longer so rundown, but also on Hank’s ability to spot the next big thing.
Hank wants Lena to move on and live her life, not feel tied to the club that’s been his lifelong passion. Still, when she starts dating Nash (Daniel Abeles), an ambitious, up-and-coming DJ, her father is less than thrilled; DJs aren’t artists to Hank, and he thinks his daughter should know better than to be taken in by this charlatanry. But Lena thinks maybe, together, she and Nash can build a bridge between Hank’s storied past and Nash’s enormously popular present fame, a bridge that can lead to a sustainable future for all of them.
Hank, Lena, Nash, and Toby (the club’s jack-of-all-trades from sound man to bookkeeper, played by Brian Miskell) are meant to be passionate people who care deeply, more than anything else, about music, even if their visions of what that means sometimes contradict. (It’s hard to say what Bette’s passionate about, other than Lena; she keeps hanging out at Hank’s even after she’s moved to the suburbs, many years after she and Hank split up but mostly complains about the music.) But there’s no emotional depth or richness to either their characters’ emotional lives nor their stories, no real feeling of either history or present.
The constant pop culture references can be distilled to anecdotes, substituting for (rather than enriching) a grounding in that very time and place the piece is meant to explore. There are some great (though implausible) stories, but it’s not enough to hang a play on, especially when the plot feels full of loose ends. (How is it, for just one example, there’s been a vacant warehouse next door to the club, literally accessible through a door next to the bar, for twenty-five years and it’s never occurred to them to put bands in there until after they have a successful underground DJ event that makes big money?)
The cast, especially Brown and Seibert, does everything they can to make it work. Brown has a rough-edged charisma and a passion when talking about music that let you see how he could simultaneously be a crotchety, cranky misanthrope and attract big-name bands to do sets at a tiny club. Seibert has a determined core under a shell of quirky disaffectedness; and shows a genuine love for her father that matters to her more than anything. Abeles, too, as the smart but smarmy Nash, sells the idealism of DJ culture.
I think the play wants to be about cultural shift: about the changing values of authenticity, which America prizes on paper but is likely to sell out for the shiny new thing beloved of the masses; about the dangers of closing one’s mind to cultural change, no matter how much one might venerate the era that’s ending; about the difference between an artistic experience that’s about a singular artist and one that’s about a collective mood. But it doesn’t seem to have much to say about any of these ideas. Its soundscape winds up more vivid than its characters, from the opening pop strains of Material Issue’s “Valerie Loves Me” over a nearly blown-out speaker system to the closing throb of a dance-club bass line echoing from the warehouse next door.