We all do things that bend the rules. Sometimes we break them, sometimes we ceremoniously throw them out the window. In Arena Stage’s season opener, the world premiere of Morris Panych’s The Shoplifters, these bends and breaks are elevated to dizzying heights, until there’s nothing to do but laugh at dreary realities and their role in propelling us toward the ridiculous.
Alma is a broke old woman with a stolen steak shoved up her dress. She’s a regular shoplifter, a seasoned pro, who has as many rationalizations for her behavior as she does contraband goods tucked in her purse. She’s being held in the storeroom by Dom, a young, naïve evangelical security-guard-in-training “two sizes to small for the job,” who believes he can redeem the shoplifters he apprehends by playing it by the book (and by the Good Book, too).
Shortly thereafter, we meet Phyllis, Alma’s nervous accomplice and first-time shoplifter, apprehended with the ingredients for a full birthday cake on her person. (It is, after all, her birthday.) And then there’s Otto, older, more jaded, more world-weary than the eager young kid he’s training, who’s doing his best to follow his own idiosyncratic code of ethics while watching over the grocery store and sorting out the mess caused by two poor women stealing some steak.
The series of words and events that unfold ask us to consider the neophyte and the professional, the powerful and the disenfranchised, and the way we invent and reinvent explanations of right and wrong. But nothing gets as heavy as these themes might suggest. Indeed, the show is replete with physical comedy, verbal gymnastics, a couple of planks of raw steak, and absurd characters in absurd situations. As an evening of zings and guffaws, The Shoplifters packs a comic punch.
Together, these four performers form a solid and luminous ensemble. As Alma, Jayne Houdyshell shows a nimble balance of scruffy candor and acerbic wit. Delaney Williams, as Otto, matches her brusqueness and sarcasm with finesse. As nerve-ball Phyllis, Jenna Sokolowski is compelling in her ethical back and forth.
And as the eager security aspirant, Adi Stein grants Dom a gawky fervor, so bouncy and puppy-like we can’t help but like him in spite of his overzealous awkwardness.
While the play references the societal influences that compel each of the characters to make, at times, questionable choices, it’s handled mostly as a part of the banter. “The imbalances of the world cannot be remedied by a can of stolen tuna,” we hear Alma say, and later: “Stealing isn’t always about taking things.”
Closes October 19, 2014
Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
1 hour, 40 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $55 – $90 (dynamic pricing)
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Here is, perhaps, this productions only disappointment—staying a bit too much on the surface, when the subject implicitly references an issue of depth. But playwright and director Morris Panych says outright in the program, social justice isn’t what he’s after.
It is, all told, a well-crafted production that’s both fun and lovely to watch. The set, designed by Ken MacDonald (who served double-duty as costume designer as well) provides an eye-catching and innovative warehouse setting, made from large cardboard warehouse boxes with cutouts to backlight bottles of olive oil, Oreos, and Nutella. The space was used well, and the costumes rested firmly on the comic side of realism.
It may not offer up solutions to the problems that compel these characters to shoplift, to look the other way at obvious crimes, or to look to organized religion for hope and redemption, but kudos to The Shoplifters for broaching a culturally loaded topic. More kudos still for accomplishing this energetic and fast-paced night of heart and thievery.
The Shoplifters . written and directed by Morris Panych . Featuring Jayne Houdyshell, Delaney Williams, Jenna Sokolowski and Adi Stein . Set and Costume design: Ken MacDonald . Lighting design: Nancy Schertler . Original Composition and Sound design: David Van Tieghem . Stage Managers: Kurt Hall and Martha Knight assisted by Pat Cochran . Produced by Arena Stage . Reviewed by Jennifer Clements.
Closes October 19
Kate Wingfield . Metro Weekly Utterly compelling, Jayne Houdyshell delivers her Alma with such completeness and ironic authority, it is impossible to imagine anyone else in the role.
Barbara Mackay . Theatermania Houdyshell gives a delightful performance as the no-nonsense Alma,
Peter Marks . Washington Post Rather than gallop to a humorous finish, “The Shoplifters” struggles vainly to find one.
Susan Berlin . TalkinBroadway far less preachy than out-and-out funny.
Jennifer Perry . BroadwayWorld Stein and Sokolowski are both heartbreakingly human and masters of comedy.
Elliot Lanes . MDTheatreGuide Adi Stein as Dom steals the show as the over enthused trainee.
Robert Michael Oliver . DCMetroTheaterArts a delightfully sitcom-esque evening of cops and robbers turned on its head.