New York-based playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis is a bit of a hot property in Baltimore these days. Last spring the Mobtown Players (of which I’m a board member) produced his Biblically-themed courtroom drama, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, which became one of the most successful shows in Mobtown’s recent history. And Friday night, Glass Mind Theatre got its second season off to a promising start with an earlier Guirgis work, Den of Thieves.
Judas and Thieves are very different plays, to be sure. But they share what seem to be Guirgis’ great strengths and weaknesses: on the one hand, his ambitious theatrical vision and empathy for society’s castoffs; on the other, his jarring tonal shifts and flabby structures. Guirgis has so much to say, he sometimes struggles to shape it into coherence.
Unlike Judas, which is a good hour longer, Den of Thieves never drags—certainly not in Glass Mind’s high-energy production, directed by Britt Olsen-Ecker and featuring a cast of both veterans and newcomers to the company. Sarah Ford Gorman is sensational as Maggie, a barely recovering thief whose desire to reform her life can’t resist the advances of her ex-boyfriend, Flaco, who barges into her decrepit apartment with the kind of too-good-to-be-true scheme that fictional crooks are forever plotting—in this case, to rob a nightclub frequented by drug dealers and celebrities, including Leonardo da Vinci. (“You know, the guy from Titanic!” Flaco bellows, proving how thoroughly he has cased the joint.)
Gorman gives Maggie the broken nerves and wounded expression of an addict, though her drug of choice is crime (and possibly snack cakes); her unexpectedly vibrant laugh is both a weapon to ward off false hope and an affirmation of the spirit still clinging to life. So grounding is her presence, she manages to keep Christopher Kryzstofiak’s madcap Flaco from running away with the show.
I've seen Kryzstofiak play half-a-dozen roles in Baltimore the past few years, from Happy Loman to a Grundlehammer-wielding superhero, and this may be the most fun I’ve seen him have onstage. Wielding “Thug Life” tattoos, a handgun, and an outrageous accent, he is the perfect parody of the wannabe gangster—making his inevitable plunge from bravado in the second act all the more striking. Though Guirgis strains credibility in the final scene by forcing a romantic reconciliation between Maggie and Flaco, their relationship is affecting in a way I did not think possible when he first crashed through her door.
Rounding out the den of petty thieves are Paul (J Hargrove), the grandson of a legendary safecracker, and Boochie (Elizabeth Galuardi), Flaco’s pneumatic new girlfriend. (To no one’s surprise, Boochie is a bubble-headed stripper.) For pretty much all of Act One, the play proceeds like a Skid Row comedy of manners, with everyone but Maggie defined by a single trait: Flaco is volatile, Boochie vacuous, and Paul nebbish. The performances are sharply observed, though Hargrove’s New York accent comes and goes, particularly when he is shouting, and I wish Olsen-Ecker had dialed down the volume at times—greater contrasts would have helped us listen more closely. But Guirgis turns expectations on their head when the thieves are caught in the act by the club’s owners: a mob boss’s son, nicknamed Little Tuna (Alexander Scally), and his psychotic cousin Sal (Peter Blaine). Little Tuna makes his captives a deal: If one thief agrees to die by dawn, the other three will be spared.
The scene that follows is tremendous. Tied to chairs and watching the sun inexorably rise, Boochie, Paul, and Flaco take turns arguing why the world would be a worse place without them. Suddenly the stereotypes have dimensions, and the actors shift flawlessly with the tone; Galuardi’s speech is especially compelling, as Boochie—stumbling unselfconsciously upon every conceivable malapropism—explains why in spite of her many hardships she is “a valuable ass” to society. Then everyone turns to Maggie, and the play changes direction again.