The Chicago Cowboy

Devised by the company
Boy Who Cried Theatre Company
Rosemary Branch Theatre

Chicago Cowboy

This devised piece draws its inspiration from the family history of director Leah Townley, whose grandparents started the first of a chain of hotels in Chicago.

The Rosenbergs and their friends in fact call themselves the Kosher Cowboys, explained more mundanely by themselves as "Jews on horseback", and their riding becomes a comic repetition that marks out the passing decades from the end of the thirties when Sam and Dora Rosenberg’s daughter Alice is a little girl to the time when she has given them two grandchildren.

There is no great drama but a picture of a family and a time seen obliquely at chronological intervals from the time when father Sam becomes aware of the plight of the Jews under Fascism and decides they should do something to help them. Through their black employee Earl Hayes and their attitude to him, we see a picture of well-meaning northerners, while Earl’s own story is rooted in the colour bar culture of Jackson, Mississippi.

The montage of often very short scenes intersected by complicated moving of furniture and properties establishes changes of location but, since these are only token settings, it could surely have been left up to the actors to establish this and avoid these hiatuses.

Lloyd Morris and Jodyanne Richardson as the parents and Elisa King as their daughter (maturing from gawky little girl to mother of two) are sincerely played and Marcus Adolphy, bringing pathos to Earl, is particularly good in his scenes with Alice. It is confident playing, taking the jokey equestrianism in its stride with the whole cast donning multiple costumes and props to give contrasting, deliberately caricatured performances of hotel guests and family acquaintances.

Musical director Peter Michaels, tinkling away on the ivories in the background, becomes Joe, the pianist Earl installs in the hotel lounge, who leaves a silent emptiness when he goes off to war and a different kind of exploitation. Without his musical accompaniment, those changes seem longer.

Ela Slade’s setting, with a suggestion of ranch fencing around the perimeter, seems to be offering some kind of analogy between this Chicago family and the America of the wide open spaces. The play is perhaps just trying to say that Americans, at least those who have some memory of their own roots, aren’t such bad people, working hard for their family’s happiness and meaning well.

That is probably the view many Americans have of their own country but, seen from across the ocean, this at the same time becomes a representation of the level of American unawareness of what goes on beyond their backyard, though that is probably not what the devisors and the script writer Katherine Wright intended.

In about eighty minutes without an interval, this is only a cursory glimpse at a family history. It relies on the actors to make the characters interesting rather than engaging the audience in any challenging situations.

The fact that Sam has a wooden foot may just be a fact of the family, it is not used to any purpose except in that it has an upgrade along with the rest of the living standards. The intriguingly staged horse riding just seems an oddity, though it presumably demonstrates a level of wealth and gives an opportunity for satirising upper middle class concerns. There are moments, such as when wife Doris, on being told how much it costs $8000 is need to bring a Jewish refugees out of Europe asks “How many Jews do you get for $8000 – a whole shtetl?”

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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