Block St. Theatre’s ‘Flamingo & Decatur’ hits jackpot with World Premiere

By Philip Potempa

The landscape and allure of Las Vegas are as ever-shifting as the sands of the desert surrounding this entertainment and gambling mecca.

And behind all of the glitter, glowing neon and legendary entertainment with promise of excitement cranks the machine of the ages-old gaming industry, the means which finances the entire front, making it all possible.

As so often chronicled in history books, Las Vegas is a city defying the odds to exist, even though early engineering and urban planning would have thought it impossible that today it supports a population of nearly 2 million and finds energy and water as needed. But a decade ago, in 2008, it seemed luck had run out when the nation’s economy dived after the housing crash. I still recall writing about financial devastation that hit Sin City as tourists stayed away to save their dollars and the mighty hotels and casinos trimmed their workforce.

This sinking scenario, which thankfully did recover around 2013, sets the stage for an engaging, thoughtful and entertaining World Premiere play by Poker-pro-turned playwright Todd Taylor. “Flamingo & Decatur,” an address nod to a known stretch of housing developments not far from the famed Vegas Strip, is a two-hour visit to another side of Las Vegas playing through Feb. 18 courtesy of Arkansas-based Block St Theatre Co. at Theatre Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. in Chicago.

This dark comedy offers a look inside the minds of a gambling trio living in the city my own father loves to refer to as “Loss Wages.” (Although admittedly, both Dad and Mom enjoy their own occasional fun with video poker and the face-to-face financial tug-a-war with slot machines, still sometimes called “one-armed bandits” though the pull-down lever handles have long been replaced with less effort buttons.

“Flamingo & Decatur” stars a smart and talented cast of four featuring Stephanie Bignault, Drew Johnson, Jason M. Shipman and Nathaniel Stahlke.

When the 2008 economic downturn hit Las Vegas, many of once fashionable new homes, townhouses, condos and properties were left behind, as owners gave up the struggle of making mortgage payments. Banks, suddenly inundated with foreclosed homes and properties to now manage, found it difficult to keep up. Enter Jackson, played by the likeable and believable Shipman, with his lug of  a buddy Ben, played by the very funny and animated Johnson. The duo of professional gamblers decide to take advantage of others’ financial disadvantage by securing one of the swank shuttered homes at the most affordable price imaginable.  However, nosey neighbor Simon, actor Stahlke, and his cat Desmond, are not happy with the new and mysterious next-door duo, including these guys’ less-than-neighborly reluctance to water and mow the adjoining front lawn. When Bignault, as casino card shark Nicole, joins the gents’ household, the neighborhood dynamics shift and even the high privacy fences can’t keep secrets secure to assure “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”

Bignault, Johnson and Shipman give fun and fascinating performances which perfectly convey the complicated, craving minds of gamblers. During my own trips to Las Vegas, it was commonplace for me to head up to my hotel room in the wee late hours after seeing a show and I’d notice more than one dedicated gamblers perched on a stool at a gaming table or in front of a slot machine. Several hours later, one my way to breakfast through the casino, I’d see the same determined soul still firmly planted and intent on a winning streak. But more than just an examination of the gambling spirit, this play, directed with care and careful calculation by Kevin Christopher Fox,  provides insight into human nature, relationship and taking personal and professional risks. For anyone who has ever wondered how some seemingly fly-by-night sorts make it through life, crossing lines and igoring rules, answers await for audiences taking a gamble with guaranteed pay-off with a ticket to “Flamingo & Decatur.”

Some of the play’s funniest and odd exchanges are courtesy of actor Stahlke as cartoonish, needling neighbor Simon, who is more than one-dimensional by the final moments of the story.

The production team for “Flamingo & Decatur” includes Joe Schermoly with his inventive scenic design, including a patchy grass lawn and working, water gurgling Jacuzzi paired with Jessica Mondres‘ flair for prop design, such as delicate, swinging wind chimes and bachelor crumpled fast food wrapper remnants galore. Chloe Patten helps define the characters with her detailed costume design and Andrew Ridgers‘ fine-tuned lighting design with Christopher Kriz‘ sound design framing every scene. Annamarie Giordano is production manager and Celeste Richard is stage manager.

As my dad still so often reminds today, the mega-casino hotel properties of today weren’t built by the winners, but by the losers.

Performances are 8 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $33 and discounted to $28 for Seniors $28 and $23 for students and military. FYI: or (773) 975-8150

Philip Potempa is a veteran journalist and published author. He can be reached