I had a great expectations for No Witness. Perhaps I was expecting too much.
It all sounded so good. A local playwright, Ted May, has written a new work about Mafia kingpin Sam Giancana who lived here for 30 years until he was murdered in his Oak Park home. The show includes music, has a great title and a large cast of 14, much of it is set locally, and it would be enjoying its world premiere at Open Door Repertory Theater right here in our community.
A musical about the Chicago Outfit? I'm in! I excitedly anticipated that perhaps the play might provide some new insights or make this infamous mobster more comprehensible.
Unfortunately I was disappointed. Though the production, directed by Mary Pat Sieck, is ambitious and everyone seems to be working very hard, this new work is sprawling, unfocused and has little depth. It takes on too big a load and falls short.
No Witness spans 40 years, from the birth of "Mafia Princess" Antoinette Giancana in 1935 to the night her mobster father was assassinated in their home on Wenonah Avenue in 1975. The two-hour show with one intermission is essentially a docudrama, a cinematic string of quick vignettes presenting all the facts but containing little or no emotion. It's impossible to hook into any of the characters or really care about them.
This show feels like highlights from Chicago Outfit history rather than providing any character development. If anything, the key figures are even more vague and confusing by the end of this play.
I lost track of how many scene shifts occur but it is exhausting with constant location hopping. Within the intimate Open Door performance space, the audience watches virtually non-stop furniture shuffling during the many blackouts. Even victims who have just gotten whacked rise up in the semi-darkness to help carry off tables, chairs, and props.
The settings of these dozens of quick episodes range from Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove to the Armory Lounge in Forest Park, from Mount Carmel Cemetery in Hillside to the Psychiatric Ward at Columbus Hospital in Chicago. Projected slides indicating the locations and dates of each scene provide a sense of historical accuracy. But other period details are pretty vague (orange jumpsuits on inmates at Cook County Jail in the 1930s?)
The transitions are often awkward and abrupt.
No Witness alleges to be a play with music, so I was anticipating a musical. But there are just three numbers composed by Laurence Nestor. Two of the songs are an hour apart in Act One. Antoinette sings one; Sam's wife sings the other. The third is heard offstage near the end of the show, inexplicably sung by some unidentified male in the wings. Though these songs attempt to provide some emotional development for the characters, they really do little to advance the story or warm us up.
Some of the casting choices are perplexing. Frank Menolascino, a good-looking young actor who seems ripe for one of the roles in Jersey Boys, plays Sam Giancana from his 20s to the time of his murder at 67. But he never appears to age during the sprawling span of events. When he shows up in a tuxedo at the LaSalle Hotel wedding of his daughter he looks like a kid going to his junior prom.
Louie Bartolomeo is solid and believable as Sam's father, an angry Sicilian immigrant who endured Mob retribution because of his son's rising career.
Gerald G. Price delivers a strong performance playing two different African-American hoods. He's especially convincing as Teddy Roe, the boss of the South Side illegal lottery empire murdered in the '50s when Giancana took over his lucrative territory.
Veteran actor John Roeder has some good moments in a cameo role as Joseph Kennedy, meeting Giancana at the Ambassador East to push for Sam's support for his son JFK's burgeoning political career.
Jake Meyer plays both a lecherous priest as well as Dominic "Dutch" Blasi. The latter, according to this work, figures strongly in Giancana's demise.
A note from the playwright in the program refers to his stage play as a "fictionalized account" of true events. This must be a legal loophole. The stuff is "thoroughly documented" yet it's made up?
Two different actresses portray Sam's daughter Antoinette: Viv Badynee and Liz Marsden. The way the role is written, she's a whiny child and a blurry adult. Topics are touched on — like her possible learning disabilities and her victimization by a sexually abusive priest at St. Bernardine's. But nothing is ever developed or expanded on. There's just an accumulation of stray details.
A harrowing depiction of electric shock therapy feels like it's out of some bad old Susan Hayward movie melodrama.
There's a nice tight little scene at the Armory Lounge, which was bugged for years by the FBI. A gathering of mobsters plays poker while watching As the World Turns when Walter Cronkite interrupts the soap opera to announce that the President has been shot in Dallas.
There's a late-in-the-game dream dance featuring Sam and his wife (Gracia Gillund), which is planted to reinforce that he really loved her despite his lifelong philandering. But this sequence feels extraneous.
The tech director is Josh Prisching, with assistance by Paul Kerwin.
The stage manager is Bronwyn Schlaefer.
No Witness takes on too much territory and, in the process, fails to engage its audience.