No American city boomed bigger in the real estate bubble than Las Vegas. No city fell harder when the bubble burst in 2008. By 2009, foreclosure spread through Sin City’s new housing developments like weeds. Todd Taylor gives us a taste of this landscape in his new play FLAMINGO AND DECATUR, a Block Street Theatre production now onstage at Theater Wit.
Two professional gamblers, Ben and Jackson, have moved illegally into a vacant foreclosed house. The backyard, complete with a bubbling Jacuzzi and putting green, shrivels under the Vegas sun. So does Jackson (Jason M. Shipman), despite his vigorous workout on an old treadmill. The man just can’t get a break no matter how hard he strategizes. His fellow squatter Ben (Drew Johnson) fares only slightly better as an online poker pro. Whatever nighttime magic drew these guys to the Strip, playwright Taylor reveals them in the glare of morning-after light.
All the world's a bet in FLAMINGO & DECATUR
On this turf, just about anything becomes a bet. Jackson isn’t simply exercising on that treadmill; he’s building stamina for a bet involving a golf game on a tough mountainous course. Meanwhile, he’s got a bet to stick to an alcohol-free vegan diet longer than another gambler. Even with the college football game on TV, Jackson has a bet going that’s far more intricate than a final score.
Directed by Kevin Christopher Fox, FLAMINGO AND DECATUR dwells in guy territory with technical gambling jargon as its native tongue. Know what a “bad beat story” is? That’s a surefire win at the poker table that goes wrong. A “degen”? That’s a gambler with self-destructive, degenerate habits.
Block Street Theatre captures frayed fringes
The relentless Jackson attempts to bluff everyone as he strives for a win – be it his wallet or his heart. Both come into play when Nicole (Stephanie Bignault), a savvy and discplined gambler who's also a health-conscious vegan, sublets a room in the house. That a woman known for picking naive tourists clean at 2:00 a.m. poker games would so easily believe that Jackson is a true vegan and the house legally rented seems, to this viewer at least, fairly implausible. Yet the details of their existence on the frayed fringes of the legendary Strip ring true. And Bignault and Shipman handle their characters’ evolving relationship with appealing sensitivity.
Jackson's search for authentic bonds in a town built on bluffs is fascinating. But what this viewer missed in FLAMINGO AND DECATUR was more tangible desperation. With Las Vegas’ economy collapsing and their own luck tanking, Jackson and Ben are in very dire straits. They certainly talk about the situation constantly. But the stage never quite fills with outright terror over what tomorrow might bring. Taylor creates a depressing but not quite sufficiently threatening reality for these lost souls of Sin City.
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About the Author
Susan Lieberman is a playwright, journalist, teacher and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. She is currently working on a commission for BBC Radio.
Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago