Renee Rosen

Author Renee Rosen in the former basement speakeasy at The Green Door on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013 on the North Side. Rosen is the author of "Dollface." (Chris Walker, Chicago Tribune)

The title character and narrator of Renee Rosen's new novel, "Dollface," is eager for action.

"My mother … was used to me stirring up trouble," says Vera Abramowitz. "By the time I turned fifteen I was sick of being too afraid to live. That's when I got busy, making up for lost time."


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Abramowitz is 18 when we meet her, and she's out to have a ball. And what better place for a young woman to exercise her self-expressive and self-indulgent urges than Chicago in the 1920s, a period of bootlegging, murder and other crimes?

Vera is almost Zelig-like in her ability to brush shoulders with notable figures of the time, especially after wowing, hooking up with and dating two — yes, two — men: Shep Green and Tony Liolli, slick characters and rival mobsters.

It's easy to understand how Vera casts a blind eye to her boys' professions, dazzled as she is by the ride they take her on. There she is, speak easy-hopping one night on the North Side and meeting, within a couple of pages, both Al Capone and Charlie Chaplin. Another evening, it's Dion O'Bannion and Hymie Weiss, noted mobsters. And, look, there's Mary Pickford! After Vera marries one of her suitors, they take a short honeymoon in New York, where they "had icy cold gin martinis with his friends Charlie Luciano and Meyer Lansky."

But eventually, the fun stops, the famous people vanish and the reality of gang warfare takes over. Vera, now with a baby girl, has to fend for herself in the gun-toting, booze-peddling style of the men she has gotten to know so well. She has tough times and learns some hard lessons.

Rosen evokes the era colorfully, traveling across the city with well-researched ease, from the Stockyards to a certain Clark Street garage on Valentine's Day. Vera is a compelling character, her background intriguing and her relationships with her men, female friends and especially her widowed mother captured with emotional understanding.

There are few local writers who are more determined than Rosen. Her first, the novel "Every Crooked Pot," was published in 2007, and she has spent the intervening years immersing herself in local history and polishing her style. These have been years well spent and excitingly realized in "Dollface."

Inside the Pivens' studio

No one is a born actor. OK, maybe Mickey Rooney. But even Marlon Brando studied acting.

It would be difficult to list the many actors and actresses who have benefited from the teachings of the late Byrne Piven and his very much alive wife, Joyce, at their Evanston-based Piven Theatre Workshop. Some of them — the couple's son, Jeremy; Aidan Quinn; and the Cusack kids, Joan and John — are famous. Most of them are not. But all — including those who might come to "In the Studio With Joyce Piven" with no thespian ambitions at all — will see great value as Joyce Piven and collaborator Susan Applebaum describe the details and building blocks of the Pivens' shared aesthetic, one that "the idea of community … would inform and be a part of everything."

The book is in two sections that give the particulars as well as examples of improv and theater games. Anyone in the theater would be foolish not to gobble this up, no matter what point they are at in their careers. I was particularly intrigued by the concept of "encounter" and exploring the reasons for "finding the encounter is the overarching theme of our work."

As one with no ambitions for the stage, I still think there is great life value here. As Joan Cusack said at an awards ceremony honoring Joyce, "the Workshop is not about the stars it creates. The children … are there to develop their own voice as an end in itself."

What a wonderful thing.

Rick Kogan is a Tribune senior writer and columnist.

"Dollface"

By Renee Rosen, NAL, 416 pages, $15

"In the Studio With Joyce Piven"

By Joyce Piven and Susan Applebaum, Methuen, 240 pages, $24.95