For a play that proclaims its distaste for nostalgia as fervently as this one, Laura Eason’s The Undeniable Sound of Right Now—playing at NYC’s Rattlestick Playwrights Theater through May 2—sure does a fair bit of dabbling in sentimental waters. From the moment it opens with a singular riff from Material Issue’s “Valerie Loves Me” to the Nirvana references that follow, the play firmly establishes itself as a time capsule from Chicago circa 1992. An Almost Famous–like ode to the powerful pull of music, with Reality Bites‘ Gen X selling-out struggles and High Fidelity‘s arrested development mixed in, this mashup covers well-trodden ground, providing an intimate look at an aging rocker forced to confront a reality he neither likes nor understands and his daughter’s conflicting desires for the comfort of her father’s world and the thrill of a new passion.
Hank (Jeb Brown, late of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical) is the crotchety 40-something owner of a legendary club (think CBGB’s Hilly Kristal), an unrepentant fan of rock ‘n’ roll and an entrepreneurial pioneer in a once-dodgy neighborhood, now dealing with the consequences of the gentrification he helped bring about. With ex-wife Bette (Lusia Strus), he raised his only daughter, Lena (Rocky’s Margo Seibert) on a steady diet of The Clash and Fleetwood Mac, but when she falls in with house DJ and proto-hipster Nash (a smarmy yet not entirely unlikable Daniel Abeles), Hank disapproves and their once-close relationship becomes strained. Meanwhile, their landlord’s scummy son Joey (Chris Kipiniak) is raising the rent, and, between booking bands and counting the night’s take, nice-guy Toby (Brian Miskell) is mooning, unrequitedly, over Lena.
Art vs. commerce, the old guard vs. the new, cool guys vs. nice guys—if these stories sound familiar, that’s because they are. But John McDermott’s set design is a gritty love letter to the dingy, smoky clubs of the era, all weathered posters, DIY fliers, and politically correct bathroom signage (‘MEN’ to the left, ‘WOMYN’ straight ahead), while Lindsay Jones’ sound design makes smart use of Chicago-area musicians (Urge Overkill and Smashing Pumpkins also figure in). The costumes—an assortment of funky platform boots, motorcycle jackets, and ripped tights for rock legacy Lena, Converse and flannel shirts for music nerd Toby, neon and slouchy hats for douchey DJ Nash—are on point, authentic ’90s grunge instead of the updated look of the decade’s recent fashion-world revival. As a whole, the creative vision on display here is an Undeniable bright spot, but it’s not enough to pull the rest of the play into the light. C+