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Not Such a Guilty Pleasure

March 18, 2010

den.jpegSF Playhouse's brilliant current production of Stephen Adly Guirgis' Den of Thieves is my guilty pleasure of the week. I say this with some reservations as the play is hardly trash, though compared to the artsy-fartsiness of the play I saw the previous night at Berkeley Repertory Theatre by Naomi Iizuka, I feel almost guilty for enjoying myself so much at the Guirgis play.

What SF Playhouse's production demonstrates so beautifully is the extent to which a piece of theatre can be pure fun and also thoughtful at the same time. This is not a common outcome in my experience. The play is pretty silly - even Neil Simon would hesitate to tell such a story on stage. But it's also got a thoughtful edge.

Concerning a failed nightclub heist by a bunch of small-time kleptomaniacs, the play is full of over-the-top characters. Some of them, like Sal, Big Tuna and Little Tuna, are textbook Italian mobsters with a twist - the sorts of wise-guys that people the middle period films of Woody Allen. The other characters are also caricatures, but they're so interesting that their huge presence on stage is welcome. There's Flaco, a stereotypical young hoodlum, who postures and swaggers his way through life. He's a scrawny white kid, but he thinks of himself as Latino. Then there's Boochie, a white girl who looks like a hooker and thinks she's Latina. Paul is a nebbische 12-step program officer and ex-crook. His background is interesting: he's the adopted black child from a family of Jewish bandits, known back in the day as "The Den of Thieves." Finally we come to Maggie, a young Latina who actually is of Latin extraction. Of all the characters, she's the least caricatured and the quietest - though as a recovering kleptomaniac, she's also got a wild streak. She's a welcome balancing force in the mayhem.

The theatre is small. But as large as all these characters are, they're never overbearing. I was so involved in the story - there was hardly a moment when I didn't completely believe in the characters thanks to the engrossing performances by every single person on stage and Susi Damilano's pacey direction - that they could have bellowed right in my face or sat on my lap and I wouldn't have wanted more distance from them.

The play is a lot of fun. But it also engages the brain, which is why I shouldn't call it a guilty pleasure. Den of Thieves is not Strictly Come Dancing or Project Runway. The playwright's subtle commentary on the nature of dishonesty, the reasons why people fall into and out of a life of crime and our deep desire as human beings to "follow the herd" have kept me thinking ever since.

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