Review: ‘The Undeniable Sound of Right Now’ at The Keegan Theatre

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If KISS were starting out today, they’d be trying to get noticed on a streaming music site like Spotify. And followers would find their tour dates on apps like Bandsintown. Or maybe the masked marvels would land a recording contract simply by racking up views with a vid on YouTube. But back in the pre-digital day, the music scene was different, not only for performers and fans but for local presenters and venue owners.  Turns out those seismic shifts in the music industry could precipitate some poignant backstage family drama, as we learn from Playwright Laura Eason’s fond tribute to that time, The Undeniable Sound of Right Now.

For anyone torn between whether to check out an edgy rock club or catch some captivating characters on the legitimate stage, Keegan Theatre’s DC premiere of Eason’s play has got you covered. As directed with verve and grace by Brandon McCoy, The Undeniable Sound of Right Now is rockin’ live theater about live rock music.

Susan Marie Rhea as Bette, Chris Stezin as Hank, Jessie Power as Lena, and Kevin Hasser as Toby in The Undeniable Sound of Right Now. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The play is set in 1992 in Chicago at a grungy rock-band bar owned by Hank, who for a quarter-century has hosted shows by a who’s who of up-and-coming and now name-brand bands. Both Hank’s Bar, as the dive is called, and Hank himself have become legendary. As executed by Set Designer Matthew J. Keenan and Properties and Set Dressing Designer Cindy Landrum Jacobs, the joint’s fading glory is evident in every dank detail. There’s cheap beer on tap, a messy collage of paint and posters on the walls, crushed plastic cups and other trash from last night’s bash on the floor. A sign in a hallway reads: “We know our restrooms suck. Deal with it.” We get the picture and almost the stink. And Sound Designer Veronica J. Lancaster selections of pre-show and inter-scene tracks from the likes of The Clash, Gun N’ Roses, Bush, and Nirvana are a mellow time tunnel for those who were around back then.

The play sets out to dramatize a point in pop culture history when DJ’ed raves were in ascendance and live-music venues were losing business. And the crux of this conflict gets played out in a father-daughter relationship that is as moving as any I’ve seen on stage. The very compelling Chris Stezin plays fifty-something bar owner Hank, a man whose place in the rock-scene sun still shines for some but is slowly but surely being eclipsed.  His scrappy, adoring daughter Lena, ebulliently played by Jessie Power, can go toe-to-toe self-assuredly with her dad or any other man.

Chris Stezin as Hank and Jessie Power as Lena in The Undeniable Sound of Right Now. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The going between dad and daughter gets tough when Lena begins dating a hip DJ named Nash. “I hate DJs,” says Hank bluntly. We sense some of a father’s familiar angsting when the daughter who loves him now falls for another man. But with this suitor, the stakes are even higher because Nash represents the music-biz competition, the next wave, the crowds that won’t come round anymore—and Hank’s “dated taste.” Hank waxes nostalgic about “a time when music meant as much as anything,” “when music sent people out of their minds.” And in Ryan Sellers’s nimbly emotive performance as Nash, we see both the charmer Lena fancies and the future Hank fears.

There’s a family backstory. Lena’s biological mother was an addict and is out of the picture. Lena was raised by Hank and his second wife Bette, now his ex, who is complicatedly still around, and agitatedly portrayed by Susan Marie Rhea. The bar’s history is itself almost a character—Stevie Nicks, KISS, The Clash, and other names are dropped.  And Hank’s sole employee Toby—who sweeps up, keeps the books, and has a crush on Lena—is an adorably awkward nerd in Kevin Hasser’s warmly amusing performance.

The plot sputters a bit when the landlord’s son Joey shows up demanding a 20 percent hike in the rent, at which point Lena and Nash concoct a plan to raise cash by throwing a DJ’ed rave in an adjacent empty warehouse. The unsympathetic rent-collector twist is a tired trope, but Josh Sticklin’s menacing yet ingratiating turn as Joey is so fun to watch we don’t mind.

Ryan Sellers as Nash and Jesse Power as Lena in The Undeniable Sound of Right Now. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Eason can get to the emotional core of her characters, though, in surprising ways. Hank, for instance, has a heartbreaking speech to Lena in which he remembers the feelings that accompanied his decision to raise his motherless child:

I keep thinking I’ll get over it. For years, I’ve been hoping, O.K., when she can sit up, I’m not going to be so attached. O.K., when she can talk, when she can walk, O.K., when she’s 10 and like a little person, I will not feel this.

But he can’t.

I can’t stop loving you.

And we do not hear a catchy song hook. We hear the all-access feelings of an honorable father for his child.

For fans of both live rock music and live theater, Keegan Theatre’s production of The Undeniable Sound of Now is a terrific twofer. It’s got a heart that beats like a drum kit, and it packs a wallop like a subwoofer.

Running Time: One hour 55 minutes, including one intermission.

The Undeniable Sound of Right Now plays through May 27, 2018, at The Keegan Theatre—1742 Church Street NW, Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 265-3767, or purchase them online.

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.