Chris Stezin is a prolific playwright whose last play—produced at The Keegan Theatre in January of 2017—was Mack,Beth, a contemporary take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Now he’s back at the Keegan, this time as a lead actor, strumming a guitar and lamenting the past in The Undeniable Sound of Right Now. The show is a riff on contemporary music by Laura Eason, a fellow playwright and screenwriter best-known for House of Cards on Netflix.
The play itself is set in 1992 in Chicago, where Hank’s Bar, once a leading force in contemporary music, is heading toward oblivion. The place is 25 years old and showing its age. So is Hank, the 50-ish founder of the down-and-nearly-out club, portrayed by Stezin in a performance as compelling as it is emotional. (Click here for John Stoltenberg’s review.)
“The problem is that Hank is stuck in the past,” Stezin explained in an interview shortly before the show’s official opening. “He believes in live music. And he simply doesn’t understand the appeal of digital sound.” As a result, Hank is losing business to other bars that offer DJs. Worse yet, he’s at risk of losing both the club and his beautiful 25-year-old daughter because of his resistance to change.
The reason? Lena, his daughter—who was brought up by Hank when her drug-addicted mother abandoned them both—is dating the enemy. Yes, a DJ. And DJs are anathema to Hank. In fact, Lena’s taste—in both music and men—is threatening. “This is a play about relationships,” Stezin said, pointing out that the central conflict is between the character he plays and the daughter who is half his age. “Meaning that she’s exactly where he was when he started,” he added. “It’s really the daughter’s play. And Jessie Power, who plays Lena, is terrific.”
Stezin, who is now 50 himself, reflected on the fact that he is at the same point in life as Hank. And he loves the role. “Hank isn’t a tiresome middle-aged guy, he’s a fascinating middle-aged guy,” he said, adding that this is not a play about bias against age. “It’s personally gratifying for me to be in a play where the old guy doesn’t make apologies for being old. And the playwright doesn’t make apologies for him, either.”
Although he started out as an actor some 25 years ago, Stezin has always moved back and forth between writing and performing. In fact, he started writing in between auditions when he was in his 20s and still enjoys alternating roles, especially at the Keegan, where he is both an artistic associate and a company member.
Susan Marie Rhea, who is the Keegan’s associate director, plays Bette, the ex-wife who is still a fixture in their lives. He’s known her for years, and played opposite her in Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child in 2003. “Although Bette isn’t the girl’s biological mother, she remains connected to both the father and the daughter. And she is more supportive of Lena than the father is,” Stezin said.
As a playwright, Stezin sees Undeniable Sound as a play that’s raw in a good way. Originally mounted in Chicago in 2015, the Keegan production, directed by Brandon McCoy, is the third in the US and the first in Washington, DC. “This is a play about being young and wanting to find oneself. And it’s about being older and resistant to change,” he said, underscoring the fact that Hank, in the play, has been very successful. “He’s practically owned this kind of live rock music for 25 years. But now, to quote the Bob Dylan song, ‘the times they are a-changing.’”
Speaking of changing times, I asked him if he’d always played the guitar. He laughed and said yes, but in a “rudimentary” way. He practiced for six months to get ready for this role. And instead of formal classes, he got pointers from friends who were professional musicians.
Although he is a member of the same generation as the character he plays, Stezin does not yet have to worry about the domestic conflict at the heart of the play. He has five children, ranging from three up. “Thank goodness my oldest daughter is just 14, so I don’t have to deal with that kind of rebellion yet,” he said hopefully. “But there are intimations of what’s to come.”
Running Time: One hour and 55 minutes, including one intermission.
The Undeniable Sound of Right Now plays through May 27, 2018, at The Keegan Theatre—1742 Church Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 265-3767, or purchase them online.