Heist Anxiety

Show #32: Den of Thieves, SF Playhouse, March 13.

Corinne Proctor, Chad Deverman, Kathryn Tkel and Casey Jackson. Photo by Jessica Palopoli

Stephen Adly Guirgis has been good to SF Playhouse. The provocative 2006 West Coast premiere of  Our Lady of 121st Street and 2007 production of Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train were standout hits of past seasons, so the Bay Area premiere of a new Guirgis play should be music to the ears of Playhouse audiences. It’s especially welcome news because Den of Thieves is a terrifically entertaining comedy, much more of a confectionary romp than his meatier plays in past seasons and very much in the mode of mob-related caper comedies like Get Shorty.

It takes place on another terrific set from artistic director Bill English, a funky, cramped studio apartment with hippie-bohemian decor of questionable taste. When the set changes later in the show, it seems almost like magic.

Soon two young people come burst in during an intervention in progress. Guilt-ridden beauty Maggie’s called hyper-nerdy Paul because she’s stolen a bunch of groceries, and he’s come to nag her into taking them back. Paul is Maggie’s sponsor in a 12-step program for kleptomaniacs, and he’s also clearly infatuated with her. Paul’s grandfather was a member of the Den of Thieves, a “non-violent Jewish crime organization” that donated all its loot to build libraries. Enter Flaco, petty criminal and her jealous ex-boyfriend, who wants to rope her into pulling off a heist with him of virtually unprotected drug money in a dance club, and when Paul boasts of being able to crack a safe Flaco tries to enlist him too. “Only a bunch of stupid fucking idiots could mess this up,” Flaco says, and you know how that sort of thing usually goes.

Though a lot of the humor of his role takes the form of a broadly stereotypical New York Jewish guy who happens to be African American, Casey Jackson is nonetheless pretty funny as the nebbishy Paul, with wild staring eyes and stiff body language that amusingly belies how blithely he dispenses unsolicited 12-step advice even to somebody pointing a gun at him. Kathryn Tkel nicely conveys the deep sadness and sense of hopelessness that everybody’s drawn to in Maggie, so by the time she says she’s just not a happy person you really believe it.

Chad Deverman is superb as the cocky wannabe cholo Flaco, hair-trigger jumpy, strutting like a rooster, not too bright and clearly way out of his depth. Corinne Proctor is hysterical in the admittedly one-note part of hamhandedly seductive stripper Boochie, dumb as a box of rocks and prone to malapropisms but marvelously secure in her sexual prowess.

Not to spoil too much about the seemingly inevitable second act, it introduces some familiar Mafia types from countless comic screen depictions from Analyze This to The Sopranos: Ashkon Davaran as the menacing but civilized, conflicted heir to the business Little Tuna and Joe Madero as grunting old-school lug Big Tuna. Peter Ruocco is particularly priceless as Sal, the sadistic henchman who’s naggingly impatient to get to the torturing (the Steve Buscemi role, if you will).

It’s a show that stays firmly planted in its genre—if you’re familiar with how crime caper comedies tend to go, you have a pretty good idea what to expect. There are some marvelous speeches in the second act before it loses steam in a predictable, dragged-out ending. Overall, though, it’s a snappy, witty joy ride, brought to life dynamically by producing director Susi Damilano, nattily decked out in slick gangster attire high class and low by Bree Hylkema, and accentuated by propulsive ’70s-style caper flick music in Lorin King’s sound design. If it’s a crime to have such a good time with a bunch of lowlifes, well, fugetaboutit.

Den of Thieves
Through April 17
SF Playhouse
533 Sutter St.
San Francisco, CA

Bonus link: My San Francisco Chronicle feature on SF Playhouse’s Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train.

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