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Q&A: Keith Huff

  • "Big Lake Big City" premieres at Lookingglass Theatre
"Big Lake Big City" premieres at Lookingglass Theatre (Courtesy of Lookinglass…)
June 19, 2013|By Julia Borcherts, @JuliaBorcherts | For RedEye

Writer Keith Huff talks "Mad Men," "House of Cards" and his world premiere noir comedy play at Lookingglass

He won a Writer's Guild Award for "Mad Men," wrote for the first season of "House of Cards" and is currently working on a new SyFy show called "Helix" with executive producer Ron Moore of "Battlestar Galactica" fame, but lifelong Chicagoan Keith Huff is first and foremost a playwright.

His drama, "A Steady Rain"—in which two Chicago cops make a career-ending domestic disturbance decision—debuted in 2007 at Chicago Dramatists and earned a Broadway run starring Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman, which led to Huff's TV writing gigs.

After a season writing for "Mad Men," Huff moved to the Netflix series, "House of Cards," which has been renewed for a second season. Huff elected not to return, however, and is instead pursuing new projects including summer work on "Helix," as well as an untitled project he just sold to Starz about trans-continental gangster capitalists; a TV pilot inspired by his play "The Detective's Wife," which is being shopped to networks; a show in development with the actor Jason Lee called "Oasis," about an exclusive 1960s Palm Springs resort with a "Downton Abbey" blend of both wealthy celebrities and resort staff; and a Chicago cop show titled "Jimmy Pariah" in development with Brad Pitt's production company, Plan B.

Now, Huff's new play, "Big Lake Big City," a gritty, modern noir comedy about a Chicago cop who must unravel double identities and double-crosses to solve a murder, receives its world premiere with Lookingglass Theatre Company and founding ensemble member David Schwimmer ("Friends") directs. We called Huff to find out more about the play and his past, present and future TV projects.

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"Big Lake Big City"

Go: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through August 11 at Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan Ave.

Tickets: $36-$70; $28-$38 previews through June 28; 312-337-0665; lookingglasstheatre.org

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Where does the play's title come from?

From David Mamet's play, "Sexual Perversity in Chicago." He has in the stage directions that it takes place in a big city by a big lake. And with Mamet having the Chicago connection, I think most people know that it's Chicago. The original title was, "A Ride on the Wheel" and it refers to the Navy Pier Ferris wheel. Two of the characters live in the Harbor Point condominiums and I remembered there was big to-do about when they put the Ferris wheel up and they would light it all night and apparently, it would flash these strobe lights into the Harbor Point condominiums—and these are people who had paid a lot of money for the view. So they were complaining and trying to shut that down. And I was working for a doctor at the time who lived there and she and her husband were involved in the condo association battle with the city to try to turn the lights off. Changing the title seemed to be appropriate to the tone of the show 'cause the tone is really more comedic than anything I've written. And with my last couple shows I've done in Chicago—"A Steady Rain" was two people, "The Detective's Wife" was one person. This is a cast of 10 who are playing over 20 roles, so it just had that big ensemble feel. And I wanted to evoke that—get away from the tiny plays with the tiny casts.

What elements connect the play to Chicago?

Not that this is another cop story, but the central character is a detective. And there is a murder that he's investigating so it does have that sort of "real crime" feel. My father-in-law was a police commander and my brother-in-law was a homicide detective on the South Side. This [play] kind of moves away from the detective side of things. Of course, everyone in America will say there is no such thing as a class system [laughs]—but I think this touches on it more than any play I've ever written because we have people who are really on the skids, on the down and out; detectives—who I still tend to think of as blue collar workers, at least in Chicago. And then there's another strata—physicians and that world. Those three worlds clash and intertwine in this play. I've moved around all those worlds in Chicago and it gets interesting to take a look at that—how the three operate together and sometimes don't work very well together.

Will we recognize any Chicagoans as the basis for characters?

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