With their new theater piece, writer Robert Attenweiler and director Rachel Klein set out to combine the noirish flavor and tropes of the gangster genre with the circus/clown tradition. They’ve succeeded: All Kinds of Shifty Villains is an oddball play, but an entertaining one.
Fair warning: at the beginning, I hated the play. It began unpromisingly, with a musical number sung inaudibly by Precious Jones (Elizabeth Stewart), the story’s stereotypical femme fatale. Then, for the first couple of scenes, as we were introduced to philosophical tough-guy gumshoe Max Quarterhorse (Joe Stipek) and a batch of seedier types, I felt at sea, unable to fix on anything. Uneven acting didn’t help, and Stewart’s singing wasn’t the only thing hard to hear: some dialogue got swallowed by the Kraine Theater, thanks to certain actors’ lack of projection. (A rattling air conditioner didn’t help, but it wasn’t entirely to blame).
Gradually, though, the play won me over. It has two big things going for it: Attenweiler’s writing, and Klein’s funny, inventive, and occasionally eye-opening choreography – not as in dancing, but as in stylized and sometimes acrobatic movement, especially fight scenes and love scenes. Here much credit goes to the cast; standouts include Kari Warchock as Therese “Terry” Trueblood, Max’s loyal assistant, and Bret Haines, who plays the bearish half of a pair of lowlife brothers whom Max hits up for information. But the whole cast is good in this area. Together with the presence of a mysterious and vaguely sinister clown, the choreographed movement represents the circus element of this hybrid story.
As for the writing, it’s sharp and funny. “Will you be stepping into this sack of your own accord,” the brothers ask Terry as they kidnap her, “or must I produce a bludgeon?” Max, the detective, has just quit smoking, and his withdrawal symptoms take the form of hallucinations, which are sometimes amusingly acted out but often merely suggested by his absurd non sequiturs, which keep us enjoyably guessing. The suggestion of magic realism that comes from the evident lunacy mixes in interesting ways with the screwball comic action and Guy-Noirish set pieces, and holding it all together is Stipak, whose Max is a pretty strong focal point for the broad-ranging action. And he’s not the only nutcase in the house. “Something’s coming,” Max warns. “If it’s not what I think, at least it will be something else.”
So true, Max Quarterhorse. So true.
All Kinds of Shifty Villains runs Thursday-Sunday through June 28 at the Kraine Theater, 85 E. 4 St., NYC. Tickets online at Smarttix or call (212) 868-4444.