Flamingo & Decatur, the world-premiere play by Todd Taylor now on through February 18 at Theater Wit in the Belmont Theater District, is a bit of a cross-country sort of affair. Not that it takes the audience from one coast to another. No, this contained production about the housing crisis and gambling-as-a-profession in Las Vegas, making its debut here in Chicago, is from Taylor’s Block St. Theatre Co. out of Fayetteville, Arkansas. Even the actors in this single-set, small ensemble piece are imported, though the whole thing is directed by Chicago-based Kevin Christopher Fox.
Jackson (Jason M. Shipman) and Ben (Drew Johnson) are two self-proclaimed bros (also: dudes) squatting in an abandoned condo outside the Vegas strip, hoping to stay under the radar long enough to get their luck back, win big and find a real place to live. Ben plays online poker and Jackson “makes a living” betting on sports. When their nosy neighbor Simon (a scene-stealing Nathaniel Stahlke)—part Ned Flanders, part Melissa McCarthy—discovers the truth of the situation, he sorts out extorting Jackson in exchange for his silence.
Jackson convinces Ben to bring on a renter for one of the empty bedrooms in order to make up the monthly “rent” they now owe Simon. Enter Nicole (Stephanie Bignault), a workaday gambler who spends eight hours overnight at the poker tables, earning her keep one hand at a time. She and Jackson spark ever so slightly, but before he can go too far down that path, he admits their trespassing and she bolts.
The entire play takes place in Jackson and Ben’s desert backyard, with a patio, putting green and hot tub filling out Theater Wit’s cozy stage. Simon pops in from behind the fence upstage, and thoughtful lighting design imbues the space with washes of Nevada sunlight or the cool blues of evening. Set in 2008 during the worst of the economic crash, the costumes are casual and even the cell phones that pop up in service of the story are of the period (when the period is a decade ago). Attention to detail aside, it never quite jibes that a play about Vegas, in all its vice and lechery, never sees the inside of a casino.
The play runs just over two hours, with intermission, and like an independent film that doesn’t know when to kill its darlings and leave a few scenes on the cutting room floor, it could easily be half an hour shorter (especially the final scene that seems to go. on. forever…). Taylor’s dialogue is plenty sharp, but Fox allows for just a hair too much space around the beats in the play’s more poignant moments where a bit of pick-up would sell them better and give the audience a little more credit than they do.
And after their first few exchanges, it’s nearly impossible to tell Jackson’s and Ben’s delivery apart; instead of differentiating his character, Johnson instead spends his energy trying to match Shipman wit for wit. This approach ultimately costs us any real opportunity to appreciate Ben as anything other than Jackson’s unremarkable other half. It’s this nondescript nature that keeps the show from ever igniting; even the monochromatic nature of the cast is boring. Could they not have cast a minority in one of the four roles?
Ultimately, Flamingo & Decatur suffers from a lack of stakes, and the assumptions it takes with the audience’s familiarity with gambling and golf don’t help. It’s hard to care about two white guys whose biggest concerns are whether the feds will release their online poker winnings or if their golf game is good enough to win $50,000 against a hustler. Somewhere in there are surely more salient points about life and love and risk and connection; to be sure, Bignault tries hard to imbue her one big scene with heart and meaning. But in the end, any larger message is lost to banter between bros.
Flamingo & Decatur runs through February 18 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, with performances evenings Wednesday-Sunday and Sunday matinees. Visit Theater Wit to learn more and purchase tickets.