Cheat on Broadway With Chicago

1. Where to Stay

The James Photo: Courtesy of the James

Directly above the LaSalle Bank Theater—which hosts Kathleen Turner in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (3/27–4/7)—the new Hampton Majestic (from $149) offers budget rates in the heart of downtown’s theater district. The gold- and marble-heavy Beaux-Arts lobby elevates the property above its Hampton Inn brethren, as do flat-screen TVs and in-room massages and pedicures.

Just blocks from Chicago’s famed Magnificent Mile, hip newcomer the James (from $259) offers sexy velvet daybeds and incredible room service from Primehouse, the new lobbyside steak restaurant from the always-dramatic David Burke (owner of New York’s davidburke & donatella). For intermission munchies, skip the in-room minibars: There’s a Trader Joe’s across the street.

For higher thread counts, the Peninsula Chicago’s suite-style rooms (from $525) have his-and-hers dressing tables and bedside control panels. Take a dip in the penthouse-level solarium pool, and lap up views of the castlelike Water Tower, home to the Lookingglass Theatre (co-founded by former Northwestern student David Schwimmer).

2. Where to Eat

Fabric sculptures surround diners at Boka.Photo: Courtesy of Boka

On the north side, book at least a week in advance for Boka, extravagantly designed by the New York firm behind the Union Square Cafe and Tribeca Grand Hotel. Start with the smoky, ash-baked eggplant, and follow with balsamic-glazed local veal cheeks, or Boka’s signature dish, local, farm-raised pheasant.

The theater district’s year-old Custom House is the new pre-curtain pick for meat lovers. The sleek steakhouse even has its own charcutier, who’s responsible for the rich wild game terrines and unbearably creamy duck-liver mousse.

If you’d prefer to wait until after the show to eat, the three-story Landmark keeps its lounge open until the wee hours—1 a.m. on weekdays, 2 or 3 on weekends. Hearty bar food—duck-sausage pizza, bison sliders, latkes—can be paired with a choice of 50 wines for under $50.

Moto deserves a Jeff Award (Chicago’s Tony equivalent) for turning meals into multi-act performances. The twenty-course prix fixe (four hours; $165, plus drinks) begins with diners nibbling on the menu—an edible sheet of chile-specked Parmesan—then moving on to a liquefied salad, dry-ice “grilled” tuna, rehydrated macaroni and cheese, and a delectable frozen carrot cake.

3. What to Do

From left, scenes from Once Upon a Time (or the Secret Language of Birds), The Sparrow, and Oedipus Complex. Photo: From left, Michael Brosilow; Sean Williams; David Cooper

In a city with over 200 theater companies, a stockpile of intimate venues, and a penchant for “storefront” productions staged in Laundromats, art galleries, and men’s rooms, sellout shows are rare.

Still, you’ll need to hustle to get seats for hot spring shows like The Sparrow, a wildly choreographed tale about a telekinetic girl questioning her role in a school-bus accident (ends 4/21). More Edward Scissorhands than Carrie, the show broke box-office records at the Steppenwolf during its initial run. For families, there’s Once Upon a Time (or the Secret Language of Birds), an anime-inspired puppet show that’s winning over kids with its richly detailed sets and adults with its original, ambitious storytelling (ends 4/8).

Also on tap this season: the highly anticipated The Diary of Anne Frank, starring Claire Elizabeth Saxe, one of the city’s freshest young talents (runs 4/5–6/10); and Oedipus Complex, an avant-garde staging of the ancient tale, adapted by Chicago theater legend and two-time Tony winner Frank Galati (runs 4/28–6/3). Book tickets for all of the above at Hottix, Chicago’s answer to TKTS (minus the ridiculously long lines).

4. Insider’s Tip

T's BarPhoto: Courtesy of T's Bar

Thanks to the city’s new anti-smoking ordinance, the billow of smoke at Four Moon Tavern (1847 W. Roscoe St.; 773-929-6666) will be history on July 1, 2008. But this unpretentious, actor-founded bar should remain a post-show draw for performers. Best times to score an autograph: Monday and Tuesday evenings, post-matinee Sundays, or around eleven Wednesday through Saturday.

Further north, in Andersonville, actors drop by T’s Bar to eat (the kitchen stays open until 1 a.m.) and raise funds: T’s guest-bartending program donates proceeds to nonprofit theaters. The house is packed with stage supporters at least once a week, especially on “dark” Monday and Tuesday nights.

5. An Oddball Day

Photo: Courtesy of Actor's Gymnasium

If you’ve ever wished for an actor’s onstage physicality, consider taking a class at the Actors Gymnasium at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center in Evanston. Founded in part by a theater critic, a circus performer, and a founding member of the Lookingglass Theatre, classes (many available on a drop-in basis) run the gamut from stage combat to clowning to circus arts. After learning how to juggle or ascend a swath of silk, take a calming walk through Noyes’ two free art galleries. Then get a well-earned pulled-pork sandwich or a bowl of poblano corn chowder at nearby Kim’s Kitchen.

6. Related Links

Browse show titles at Chicago Plays, the official site for the city’s top theater organization.

Mainstream listings—theatrical and not—can be found at Centerstage Chicago and Metromix.

Many theaters have their own blogs now, making the unaffiliated, actor-authored entries at Metroblogging Chicago a must-read for local stage buffs.

For a more grassroots perspective, try Gaper’s Block, a growing empire of down-to-earth arts and events blogs.

Cheat on Broadway With Chicago