‘Hellcab’ fails to inspire despite some high points

Nestled quietly among small production studios and film equipment rental warehouses, sits the Elephant Stages — a building packed with three individual theaters just off Santa Monica Boulevard. The Elephant Stages has been home to some of the best of L.A.’s theater scene of the last decade or more.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case with Hellcab, written by Will Kern and directed by David Fofi.
Hellcab — set in Chicago over the course of one chilly day before Christmas — premiered first in 1992, and is touted as one of the “longest running shows in Chicago theater history.” It centers on one new-to-the-job cabbie (Danny Parker-Lopes) who picks up a dozen or so crazy, rambunctious and just plain odd passengers as they tool around mostly the south side of Chicago and often pay the meager fare of $2.70. The cab fare is notable for one main reason: it dates the play back to 1992, when you could pay so little for a cab ride and companies like Uber didn’t exist. But that isn’t the only dated sign.
The original run for the show was slated from Dec. 3 through Dec. 20, which makes sense. It is a holiday show, set around the holidays, featuring holiday music. To sit down as audience members and watch a story about a cabbie who discusses Christmas and family with his customers as “Silent Night” plays over the loudspeakers on a fairly warm day in January feels absolutely counterintuitive. A reason for why Elephant Stages thought to extend the show into 2015 does not come immediately to mind. But, more importantly, a reason why they even thought to mount the show in 2014 doesn’t either.
Though the play might seem topical in appearance, it proves it’s only surface level with its commentary —­­ especially in the hands of the closest thing they have to a narrator, Parker-Lopes, who handles most of the dialogue clumsily and off-tone. As the story attempts to navigate issues of race, family, sexuality, economics and eventually rape, Parker-Lopes does little to offer believability to both the narrative and his character. Lines are over-delivered, emphasized and dropped throughout. His delivery might be OK, if it weren’t for the rest of the cast (with a few exceptions) who also proved to be ultimately ill-equipped for the job at hand.
Furthermore, the topicality of the issues also seems fairly dated. In light of recent events dealing with both race and rape — most notably unrest in Ferguson and several college rape scandals in just the last year alone — the commentary provided in the play appears shallow, half-hearted and fairly uneducated. Especially considering that many of the story’s vignettes are played for comedy, the show doesn’t quite seem to know what it wants to be, nor does it convey what it wants from the audience: should we laugh or cry? Or laugh because we’re supposed to cry because the moment is so ludicrous?
However, that isn’t to say every moment was painful. There were several vignettes that were both purposefully funny and actually funny, causing laugh-out-loud moments for the audience (who filled about a quarter of the seats in the theater, which again, begs the question: why was this play’s run extended?). At one point, an expecting couple file into a cab as the woman (LeShay Tomlinson Boyce) screams desperately in labor. The father-to-be (Erick Nathan) explains their situation and introduces himself to the cabbie, by saying: “I’m not a parole officer, I’m a social worker,” to which the woman interjects, “This ain’t career day!” This joke caused an uproar of laughter from the audience. In fact, the whole vignette sparkled with energy (thanks in part to the writing, but also to the actors) that was seriously lacking from most of a show that was riddled with slow pauses between set changes and lackluster delivery.
Other notables include Lawrence Dillard’s cross-dressing gossip, who enters the cab by spraying breath freshener in his mouth, then in the air, and then whips his head around into the sprayed cloud and begins his monologue by yelling, “Well what had happened was…” with all the well-timed comedic sass and flare needed for the role.
Other notables include Scott Krinsky (most well-known for a supporting role on NBC’s action/romance series Chuck) who plays a wild-eyed and desperate new-wave radicalist who proclaims, “This country is lost! What do we need to get back on track? Space exploration!” There’s also a very nice scene between two sisters (Kimberly Alexander and Shannon McManus) as they deliver funny but believable lines like, “Can you believe what Mom did?” and, “You wonder why I don’t let you around my children.”
However, at one point a group of loud out-of-towners climb into the cab and proclaim, “You know why they call Chicago the Windy City? Because it blows!” which ultimately raises the notion, maybe this version of Chicago blows.