Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Shoplifters at Arena Stage

There seems to be a plethora of new works hitting Washington DC area stages this season.  This includes four new works planned at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. (Five counting the special event The War coming to the Center's Kogod Cradle.) For that we should applaud artistic director Molly Smith's commitment to continuing to showcase both classic American theater works and nurturing playwrights to create new experiences for theatergoers.

The first out of the gate is Canadian playwright Morris Panych' The Shoplifters. This rather slight comedy shows glimmers of potential as most works garnering a first or second production should. What keeps The Shoplifters from being just a pure sitcom on the stage is the central performance by Jayne Houdyshell, making her Arena Stage debut.

Taking place in a store room of a grocery store, designed with towers of name brand boxes by set designer Ken MacDonald, two female shoplifters, Alma and Phyllis, are apprehended by Dom, a rookie security guard. They are interrogated both together and separately by Dom and his more experienced colleague, Otto who is more inclined to let the ladies off with perhaps a warning. Over the course of several hours, there are tantalizing glimpses into all four characters, before the situation reaches resolution.

Directed by the playwright, Morris Panych, The Shoplifters is funny and in a few brief moments, rather poignant. The problem is that the scenario is slight. The play runs 90 minutes, 100 with a completely unnecessary intermission. We never learn any real reasons why Alma and Phyllis are shoplifting, nor do we ever understand their friendship. Dom is a militant deeply religious Dudley Do Right. He even states that he is former member of the Salvation Army. This makes the character entertaining, but again rather shallow. Otto, the world weary 30 year veteran guard is the only character that feels fleshed out.

The performances are uniformly good. The evening that this reviewer attended, the role of Otto was played by understudy Michael Russotto. Mr. Russotto had that blend of experience and laissez faire that comes from the character understanding the ways of the world. Adi Stein's Dom is intense with the zealotry that comes from a young man who easily sees the world in black and white, saved and damned. He presents a figure desperate to fill out the three sizes too big uniform he has been issued.

Jenna Sokolowski is physically awkward and neurotically in a tizzy as the hapless Phyllis, conned or perhaps bullied or shamed by Alma into being her partner in crime. The marvelous Jayne Houdyshell is brassy, defiant and unashamed as Alma the queen of petty thievery. Ms. Houdyshell takes her very entertaining character and runs with it, making some of the more absurd twists of the story believable.

If you decide to see The Shoplifters you will be thoroughly entertained. The play is very funny, but the comedy is very much sitcom crossed with an adult version of "a very special episode" of social conscientiousness.  Fleshing out the relationships, eliminating the intermission and, perhaps, splitting the set into the two rooms that are implied by the script, thereby making scene transitions more believable would go along way to improving the play.  Here's to its' next incarnation.

The Shoplifters by Morris Panych is being performed at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theatre at the Mead Center for American Theater through October 19, 2014. For tickets and other performance information please visit

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