Above photo: Ashkon Davaran (left) and Casey Jackson in Den of Thieves at SF Playhouse. Photo by Jessica Palopoli. Photo below: Tommy A. Gomez and Lucinda Serrano in Sunsets and Margaritas, a TheatreWorks production at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. Photo by Mark Kitaoka
How strange it is to see two wildly different comedies at two different theaters and find they have something in common: plot twists that involve the restraining of characters by tying them down with duct tape.
Since when did that become an element of slapstick? Has someone alerted Abbott and Costello?
At the SF Playhouse, more than half the cast spends the second act bound to chairs with duct tape and plastic wrap (with extra cling, no doubt) in Stephen Adley Guirgis’ Den of Thieves. And down in Palo Alto at the Lucie Stern Theatre, the TheatreWorks production of Sunsets and Margaritas by José Cruz González also hauls out the sturdy gray multi-use tape to restrain a major character. One more instance of this and we’d have ourselves a trend (apparently a trend only requires a trio of appearances).
Perhaps the Guirgis use of severe restraint should be less surprising, given the writer’s time on the writing staffs of shows like The Sopranos and NYPD Blue. In his comedy (one of his earlier, slighter efforts that lacks the heft of later shows like Our Lady of 121st Street or Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train), desperate characters, none of whom are terribly bright, embark on a too-easy-to be-true heist and end up paying for their lack of proper research.
Director Susi Damilano grounds the comedy in realism, and she’s helped immensely by Bill English’s superb set, which turns a grimy New York apartment into a sinister disco basement during an impressive Act 2 scene change. The stage looks like the real world, and that makes the characters seem truer and more recognizable. That helps the comedy a lot and gives this Sopranos-lite script a greater sense of fun and comic adventure.
Damilano also gets some delicious performances from her cast. Casey Jackson is superb as Paul a young man who never met an addiction or obsession he couldn’t conquer through a handy 12-step program. Such groups receive a hearty amount of ridicule here, but there’s also an underlying respect for the powerful potential for change these programs can offer. As the adopted son of a Jewish family, Paul has a family legacy in the form a grandfather who worked as a skilled safe cracker with a group known as the Den of Thieves. The Den would pull heists then give all the money to local charities. Paul thinks he can do the same when he gets mixed up with a small-time hood named Flaco.
Flaco (an astute, very funny Chad Deverman) is a wannabe Latino gang-banger who hatches the easy-peezy scheme that goes awry. He’s still pining for his ex, Maggie (Kathryn Tkel), who’s working through her own pick-pocketing, kleptomania, compulsive over-eating issues. But being a ladies’ man, Flaco isn’t letting his broken heart get in the way of dating a stripper named Boochie (Corinne Proctor tickles every conceivable laugh from this familiar role). The comedy ramps up a few notches with the arrival of Ashkon Davaran as Little Tuna, a mobster with what appears to be a fully functioning human heart. His cohorts, Sal (Peter Ruoco) and Big Tuna (Joe Madero), are straight from gangland central casting.
Things get really interesting in Act 2 when the comedy gives way to actual drama, and the characters begin showing a little depth. Duct-taped and plastic-wrapped to their chairs, the would-be criminals are forced to decide amongst themselves which of them should be sacrificed as a mob hit. This is where we see the more soulful and searing Guirgis of the later plays, and Damilano and her actors do a terrific job hijacking the comedy by inserting from heartfelt drama. Den of Thieves steals plenty of laughs but cracks the safe only to find drama in the vault.
Down at TheatreWorks’ Sunsets and Margaritas, the duct tape comes in handy when a wily older gentleman becomes too much for his family to handle. On the anniversary of his wife’s death and facing possible imprisonment in a senior home, Candelario Serrano has chosen to lose his mind. After crashing his car through the wall of his restaurant and terrorizing the town with a gun (and with glimpses of him in his boxer shots), Candy has been captured by his son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren and taped to a dolly.
It would certainly be easier to wheel the old man into the home while he’s taped up, but playwright González isn’t after heavy drama or even light drama. He’s after laughs, and that’s mostly what he gets in this affable comedy that feels mere inches away from being a weekly half-hour installment on Fox. Working with director Amy Gonzalez (no relation), he and a likeable cast do a sort of Latino version of Neil Simon. Instead of neurotic New Yorkers we get a middle-age son dealing with his much-macho father, his kids (a clothing designer son in a souped-up electric wheelchair and a lesbian Republican daughter) and his world-weary but loving wife.
Tommy A. Gomez as Gregorio, the son, keeps doing the equivalent of smacking his forehead and muttering, “Ay, dios mio!” by breathing into a paper bag and hallucinating that he’s seeing the Virgin of Guadalupe (a very funny and frisky Lucinda Serrano).
Just how the familial farce ends up with grandpa bound in duct tape is somewhat mysterious. But you know, there’s a lesson here. When life spins out of control, reach for the duct tape.
In comedy, apparently, nothing captures attention more than characters restrained by duct tape. It’s practically a trend. You heard it here first, folks.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
SF Playhouse’s Den of Thieves continues through April 17 at 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40. Call 415 677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.
TheatreWorks’ Sunsets and Margaritas continues through April 4 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $24-$62. Call 650 463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.