For most recent high school graduates, the summer before college is a series of innocuous adventures: house parties, road trips, maybe the occasional hookup between shopping sprees at Bed Bath & Beyond. That’s not the case for beleaguered Allegra (Marnie Schulenberg), the heroine, or closest thing there is to one, of Adam Szymkowicz’s sharp play, Pretty Theft, which closes the Flux Theatre Ensemble’s 2009-2010 season. The Dartmouth-bound Allegra is the kind of good girl found in Tom Petty songs. Sympathy abounds for her: her mother is abusive and aloof, her father is dying, and she chooses to spend her summer working in a group home for troubled adults.
Don’t be fooled, though: Theft is in no way one of those formulaic, “that summer changed my life” works. Far from it, in fact, as anyone familiar with the playwright’s work can attest. Szymkowicz’s plays are of a more irreverent ilk. His dialogue is quirky but character-appropriate and while his plots aren’t quite linear, they’re not crazily labyrinthine either. Characters travel along jagged lines that occasionally intersect. This is refreshing because while we can’t foresee the path Theft takes, its destination seems completely justifiable when it is reached.
So when Allegra connects with Suzy (an effervescent Maria Portman Kelly), a classmate who excelled in promiscuity and petty larceny while Allegra majored in scholastics, one expects the show to hit the requisite notes of friendship, betrayal, and self-discovery. To Szymkowicz’s credit, Theft does (thanks in part to Zach Robidas’ spot-on portrayal of a doltish All-American teen boyfriend), and then, unsatisfied at merely appealing to the lowest creative denominator, moves way beyond that.
Allegra meets Joe (Brian Pracht), an autistic patient with a penchant for stealing other’s belongings and lashing out at his caretakers. The two, orphaned by the world in so many ways, develop an understanding that is both dramatically rich and emotionally satisfying. But Allegra surprises herself by finding connections between herself and Suzy as well, in a friendship that takes a half-step back for every step forward that it moves.
Szymkowicz entwines Allegra’s story with that of the enigmatic Marco (marvelously inhabited by Todd D’Amour), a grifter in a Western greasy spoon who flirts with his waitress, played by Candice Holdorf (in typical fashion, Holdorf makes the most of every scene, suggesting a lifetime of disappointment and settling for a character not even granted a first name). All of the principle characters are guilty of various types of theft - as the play title suggests - born of their various needs, but they share more than just this thematic kink. Eventually, these disparate characters’ lives will converge.
It is to director Angela Astle’s credit that these characters do so at a perfectly measured pace. She is a resourceful director who knows how to take advantage of every tool in her arsenal, including set designer Heather Cohn’s versatile production layout, in which the same set pieces evoke a ballet studio, diner, mall, and even a bedroom, within Tribeca’s Access Theater. (Kudos to the ensemble cast for so quickly executing these changes).
More importantly, of course, Astle has assembled a top-notch cast. Pracht is nothing short of a divine presence, heartbreaking and true, and Kelly navigates the tightrope of providing comic relief while suggesting Suzy’s deep vulnerability. Schulenberg, as anyone who saw her in last fall’s Angel Eaters, is a gifted actress, and it is a privilege to watch her carry Theft. She captures the nuances of what the costs and gains of a lonely life are. However, I would have liked for her to have explored Allegra’s darker impulses a bit further.
In a play about stealing, though, it is altogether appropriate to applaud D’Amour, who very nearly steals Theft by show’s end. I’ve praised the gravelly-voiced actor before for his work in What To Do When You Hate All Your Friends, and yet I was still struck by his expert portrayal, one so insidious that it creeps right up on the audience. Of course, in a production as well executed as Pretty Theft, as in life, the signs were right there all along.
It would be a crime to miss them.