Ain't Theft Grand

The entrance to the Sargent Theatre at the American Theatre of Actors warns of “approximated nudity,” a promise of ideas both low-brow and winningly entertaining. And the show featuring such adornments, Heist, lives up to just that dichotomous expectation. Heist is written by Paul Cohen, who proved extremely adroit at mature narrative with this season’s Cherubina. This time, however, the premise is more puerile. A group of thieves – Blowfish (Amanda Boekelheide), Seahorse (Jeff Clarke) and The Sturgeon (Rachel Jablin) – have conspired to lift a jewelry store. They have meticulously researched and blueprinted the entire operation. One thing standing in their way, however, is that famous New York dilemma: location, location, location.

The store in question is located behind a small Off-Off-Broadway theatre mounting a one-woman show. This radically feminist show within the show has a very specific theme: clitoral explosions. As a result, the three thieves must sync their dynamite blasts with the orgasms of the star of this performance piece, Ophelia (Tracy Weller). The idea is that as Ophelia experiences orgasm, the applause and laughter generated by her performance will drown out the sound of the ensuing explosions next door.

But there is a major problem: the edgy show is a bust. The bungling burglars must work to make the show a hit just to ensure that their own larceny goes off without a hitch, causing Ophelia to get entangled with both Seahorse and a renegade named Jaguar (Christopher Ryan Richards). Some of these scenes felt shoehorned in, as staged, and the fact that Richards – and only Richards – played two roles (the second of which is an overzealous Off-Off-Broadway critic) confused the action.

Heist is a clever amalgam of genres, though it is in general too light to work as a truly successful heist show, full as it is of betrayals and red herrings. However, a lot of Cohen’s comedic dialogue remains smart (even the double entendres), and he also provides much insider theatre lingo. The jewel store plot itself is actually the lesser part of Heist; the more arresting scenes star Weller on stage, appearing in front of a backdrop made to resemble female genitalia (designed by Kris Thor). In a major credit to Cohen, what should be merely a stunt works, providing constant humor without feeling gratuitous. Neither does a group of vagina-shaped puppets that dominate several scenes in the latter half of the play.

What weighs the show down then? Thor’s stilted direction. Though Cohen’s spunky plot escalates appropriately, Thor never really hoists the action of Heist to a higher level as the plot progresses. The last few scenes move along at a clip the same length as the early scenes do, when they should have more momentum; by this time, more is at stake and the characters are desperate.

Additionally, the five members that round out Thor’s ensemble are inconsistent. Weller stands out in a potentially embarrassing role. She could have fallen flat on her face as Ophelia, self-satisfied and sex-obsessed, but pulls it off. The other women in the show, Boekelheide and Jablin, have less enticing characters. I wish I knew a bit more about the background of the three robbers. How did they meet? Who recruited whom? Boekelheide plays a more interesting part – Blowfish has rougher edges than The Sturgeon – and is more interesting to watch than Jablin, who is saddled with a largely redundant role. Neither, however, captivate during their scenes in the planning stage nor in the show’s more climactic moments.

Clarke’s scenes with Boekelheide and Jablin could also use a little polishing. He demonstrates better chemistry with Weller than with Seahorse’s criminal cohorts. Richards, however, was the most intriguing performer of the bunch. The actor was able to bounce back and forth between two very divergent character types and was not afraid to fall on his face in doing so.

That same spirit carries Heist itself a long way. Cohen’s desire to merge the silly with the suspenseful takes the show very far, but despite a lot of promise, the show remains a few shades short of arresting.

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