“The Benchmark” Examines Old Topics With No New Insight
Step Up Productions begins its 2013-2014 with a play by Emmy-award winning producer Rick Roberts, who has worked on multiple documentaries and stories about homelessness in America; a subject matter he now brings to the stage with “The Benchmark.”
The story centers on Mark (Daniel Houle), a homeless man living in a Chicago park selling StreetWise magazine in between meetings with his physician, Jack Daniels, and lounging on a bench reading William Shakespeare.
While down and out – due to his own devices and not bad luck – Mark is not an unintelligent man. While many homeless suffer mental illness, Mark is paying the price for a lifetime of bad decisions fueled by alcohol, and complacency with the consequences. Mark is technophobe, and reviles the internet and its negative effect on human interaction . He is also a lover of the public library – for both its collection of knowledge and shelter from the harsh winter.
Most of the play is Mark’s monologue, which is humorous at times, but never forms much of story. After over an hour the play has still been mostly stream-of-conscious ramblings with literary references that don’t do much to connect us with the character. Despite the fact Mark is addressing the audience for most of the play, we don’t know much more about the man than any other poor soul living on a park bench.
While the play is poignant, smart and funny, it is also tiring. The strongest parts of the play occur during dialogue between Mark and a Chicago cop (Rob Wilson) that patrols the park, and during an off-duty visit some of Mark’s deeper regrets are finally shared. However, such dialogue makes up a small part of the production, and the plot and main character develop little without it. When the climax does come – a predictable one at that – it feels rushed
The play is helped by a very impressive set featuring an abstract Chicago skyline in the background and a brick archway, which upon closer inspection is created entirely of old books. Amy Geist also plays a nearly mute bag lady who is entertaining, but more an organic piece of scenery than a character.
The play has some insightful moments on poverty and homelessness, but nothing very original. It grabs at the jersey of issues such as homeless vets, gentrification, and the lack of programs this country has to fight poverty, but never tackles any of them.
“The Benchmark” runs through October 20 at The Anthenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave. in Chicago. Curtain times are Thursday – Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Ticket prices run from $16 – $30 and are available at www.stepupproductions.com or at the box office by calling (773) 935-6875. For calender information please visit www.theatreinchicago.com.