Arena Stage’s 65th Anniversary Season opened in a big way last night with a world premiere comedy that goes far beyond the jokes to make a point about the human condition.
Morris Panych’s The Shoplifters tells the story of Alma (Jane Houdyshell) who has lots of sass and is a career shoplifter at one particular supermarket. On this day Alma and her friend Phyllis (Jenna Sokolowski) are caught stealing two steaks by two security guards named Dom and Otto (Adi Stein and Delaney Williams). It is Dom’s first day on the job and he is shall we say a little over zealous and wants to impress. Even though he never actually saw the theft happen, when the steaks fall out of the ladies dresses, he apprehends them.
…everyone is at the top of their game.
Otto has been told by the store that it will be his last day and Dom will be replacing him. Otto has been at this for a long time and as we come to find out has been watching Alma and others shoplift for years and always looked the other way because he felt sorry for them.
As the play progresses Phyllis, who just wants to go back to her job as a coat check girl, starts to cave about why this happened while giving us some details about Alma that wouldn’t be obvious. Dom has some rather “interesting” tactics to get info from people that include a religious approach and doing something weird with his eyes. By the end, everything is not what is seems from the outset and there are even a few twists thrown in that are not getting revealed here.
Morris Panych has done the impossible of writing and directing his play and does so with good pacing while finding the delicate balance of comedy and drama. Usually playwrights directing their own pieces don’t fare well because they are too close to the material. Panych raises the point that Alma isn’t a criminal. She simply can’t afford to buy food for herself. This is by no means an excuse for her actions but if good people are desperate enough, they will do whatever they need to survive. Another point in the script is that Otto knows what his job is, but yet, let’s people get away with a crime anyhow because he can tell they really need what they steal just to make it. It’s that balance that keeps this play from becoming a TV sitcom with nothing but one liners.
Casting wise everyone is at the top of their game. Jayne Houdyshell as Alma commands the stage as the tart mouth felon as she delivers the jokes with as much bite and sass as needed.
Jenna Sokolowski as the novice “criminal” plays Phyllis as a bundle of nerves as she constantly changes her story. Sokolowski has great comedic timing so she is perfect for this role.
Delaney Williams did seem a bit uncomfortable with his lines in act one last night but overall I did enjoy his performance as Otto. Here is a character that could have come off as a big blowhard and nothing else but Williams’s performance has compassion to it as well as a fatherly quality as he tries to explain to Dom that battering ram tactics are not going to work in his line of work.
Last but certainly not least Adi Stein as Dom steals the show as the over enthused trainee. His squeaky voice and comic pratfalls are marvelous and he wears his intentionally ill fitting costume like a champ. Look out for more great things from this young talent.
Set designer Ken MacDonald’s (also did the costumes) set of a supermarket stock room is the perfectly designed locale with edibles and plenty of boxes while David Van Tieghem’s music captures the urgency of the situation.
Overall Arena Stage is off to a flying start with The Shoplifters. With a fine cast under the direction of its playwright, here is one play where you won’t feel taken after seeing it.
Advisory: Adult themes.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes with one intermission.
The Shoplifters runs through October 19, 2014 at the Kreeger Theatre at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater which is located at 1101 Sixth Street, SW, Washington, DC. For tickets, click here.