The Last Hand at Inglis Hall Productions: Theater review
A well-intentioned gang violence parable muddles the real-world stakes.
Richard James Zieman draws from his own experience working in a River North bar to inspire his well-intentioned albeit perfunctory parable for gang violence in Chicago. Angel (Michael Lara), an aspiring rapper, lives under the thumb of the West Side's self-titled Pharaoh (Jonah Wilson), alongside his childhood friend and community strong arm, Clip (Anthony Conway). With dreams of a legitimate life as an inspiring and clean cut MC in sunny Los Angeles, Angel conspires to outwit his boss and financier through an orchestrated game of Texas hold'em.
"Based on true events," as the Inglis Hall Productions promotional materials advertise, may be a bit of a reach. Zieman's unnamed model for Angel, a 20-year-old gangbanger who revealed his desire to uproot himself from the ghetto in spite of his reliance on crime leaders to fund his recording sessions, ostensibly had a deeper inner battle than the heist-driven and reductive conflict that powers most of director Samuel G. Roberson's poker game–centered production. In Zieman's West Side, Angel's greatest moral dichotomy is whether to deny his boss's conditions and rap about hope, or to stay in good graces and promote crime with street thug–aggrandizing verses. In the very real world in which the production is set, however, neither decision feels like an out when stacked against the height of the problems he's under, namely poverty, social stigma, and the damning emotional burden of sins in his wake.
Clip's more authentic and heavier turmoil—he's murdered more than 30 people and still lives with all the self-reliance of a lap dog—takes a backseat once the cards are dealt. Zieman then takes a decisive step away from agitprop and toward sensationalism, but shows his hand early with a few too many wild-card characters, an early-blown and then quickly ignored Chekhov's gun, and nebulous stakes.