The bitter cold and the holiday season are both barreling into Chicago, and no one is immune from the overwhelming combination. In an effort to combat this special brand of wintry blues, Raven Theatre’s Cold Town/ Hotline: A Chicago Holiday Story takes it back to 1983, where a ragtag group of Chicagoans volunteer their time at a holiday hotline called the Yule Connection. Folks are invited to call in and chat about their seasonal stressors, but when one young caller makes an in-person visit, the team bands together to find a little connection of their own. Like a lot of holiday memories, this world premiere, written and directed by Eli Newell, has bursts of heartwarming holiday sentiment that break through a series of meandering moments.
The design for Cold Town/ Hotline is intricately detailed, from the harsh fluorescents to the uninspiring linoleum tile. The practical set by Milo Bue (Set Designer) and Eileen Rozycki (Scenic Artist) ground a wildly unrealistic premise in an extremely realistic office. The 80s costuming by Gianna Charron covers the characters in layers of warm cozy fabric very similar to those worn by the audience… although perhaps with a few more shoulder pads. The specific and moody lighting by Seth Torres (Lighting Designer) takes on the largest amount of emotional labor, elevating this drab office space with the kind of rosy lighting that is now synonymous with the holidays.
Sherman (Jonah Kaufman) is the inciting incident, entering the stage a third of the way into the play. After receiving some advice from the hotline, he decides to run away from home in search of the Yule Connection. Kaufman has that child-actor charm that makes everything he does adorable, but this would be better utilized if Kaufman was given fewer lines to memorize. Sherman is less of a character and more of a narrative device used to trap the volunteers and ask them expository questions. The other characters that make up this ensemble production don’t contain much more dimension.
Betty (Jeanne T. Arrigo) and Larry (Dennis Garcia) are hotline veterans. Betty is everyone’s favorite kooky aunt, and I don’t know who Larry is supposed to be. He spends part of the time fixing a lamp (I’m not sure why) and he has kids but doesn’t contact his family when winter weather traps him in the office. As a father, you’d think he might have a more mature or personalized response to a child running away from home. Betty doesn’t do much more, which is especially illogical since she just ended a call with Sherman’s father, who is understandably concerned about his missing son. Everything about these two as the “adults” in the room is confusing and unmotivated.
The other two volunteers are Annie (Caroline Chu), the republican Sunday School teacher, and Bruce (Sam Linda), the broke college student. Bruce is clearly written as the comedic role, but few of the jokes land. It’s actually Annie who gets the biggest laugh when she merely mentions the word “republican.” Misunderstanding and awkward conversations have Bruce twisting his sentences about, which could have been very funny, but pacing issues often cause the class clown to stumble over the punchline. A joke has to be exact, and it needs a director to feel out the timing.
Sheila (Robin Margolis) runs the Yule Connection, and it’s her first year leading the project by herself. The soon to be divorcée tries desperately to hold everything together as decorations fall around her and volunteers are in short supply. Despite being our entry into the world of Cold Town/ Hotline, Shelia is missing from a good half of the production. The script completely shortchanges its most complex character, yet Robin Margolis does great work with the little time she has on stage. This missed opportunity is indicative of the script’s overall timid relationship with conflict. The playwright sets up all of the right pieces, but falls short when it comes to knocking them down.
Without dynamic characters or fully realized conflict, the script doesn’t hold up once a kid gets involved. The lengthy lead-in, followed by a rushed montage and a lagging close, lacks the structural integrity to hold up its larger-than-life situation. Cold Town/ Hotline ultimately left some of its narratives wanting, but Eli Newell is a rising playwright and director with plenty of time to sharpen his text, lean into conflict, and make music of comedic dialogue.
Cold Town/Hot Line: A Chicago Holiday Story runs at Raven Theatre through Dec 22nd.
Robin Margolis, Sheila
Jeanne T. Arrigo, Betty
Caroline Chu, Annie
Dennis Garcia, Larry
Sam Linda, Bruce
Jonah Kaufman, Sherman
Eli Newell, Playwright/ Director
Harley Kirchhoff, Assistant Director
Megan Gray, Stage Manager
Michelle Housh, Assistant Stage Manager
Larkin Sackett, Dramaturg
Gianna Charron, Costume Designer
Seth Torres, Lighting Designer
Eric Backus, Sound Designer
Milo Bue, Set Designer
Nick Peebles, Technical Director
Eileen Rozycki, Scenic Artist
Liz Gomez, Master Electrician
Cole von Glahn, Artistic Producer
Michael Brosilow, Photographer