Critic Harold Bloom has written of “the anxiety of influence,” the problem that authors have with the work of predecessors who have in some way covered a subject. Saying something new can be a terrible challenge under such circumstances. Clearly, in Erica Smith’s Come Out and Say It, premiering at Mobtown Players as part of their program of producing short runs of new plays, the anxiety stems from Quentin Tarrantino’s 1992 film Reservoir Dogs. Like that film, Come Out is the story of the disintegration of a criminal gang in the wake of a heist that went bad, a story that has miserable and violent ends for some of them.
The difference is that Tarrantino had a high-testosterone cast, male hard cases to a man, to work with, while director Brent Englar (full disclosure: Brent is a fellow-BroadwayWorld reviewer) must make do with a crew that look and sound like five former art students at about age 30, two of whom are women. Worse, the women, who end up committing most of the violence, seem far too sensitive and emotional to act so callously. Call it stereotyping, but I never for a moment believed either could be a killer. For this kind of thing to work, you need reservoir dogs, not reservoir show dogs.
Maybe it is not fair to start from the stance that there are rules to this game, but that’s the stance I start from because there are rules and they’re well-known. The rules come not only from Reservoir Dogs, but from a clutch of heist movies that have a somewhat lighter tone, like Ocean’s 11 and The Italian Job. The violence in these enterprises is male, and the women, however cunning and however important to the plot, are conventionally female. They are not the muscle, nor are they dramatically interchangeable with the male characters. And this convention is realistic, in that it reflects gender roles in our society. So if you’re going to break those rules, you have to have an evident good reason, for instance if you are trying to do something fantastic and whimsical.
Playwright Smith has no such evident good reason. Take out a little romantic history between some of the characters and you have a group that could just as well be all men. So unfortunately the project is kind of doomed from the start.
Are there nonetheless incidental pleasures in this pre-fallen soufflé of a show? Of course. I especially admired Steven Shriner as Macy, a cheerful but menacing psychopath (the only cast member who fit the generic conventions), and the believable contortions of Christopher Krysztofiak as Vale, a paraplegic, whose entrances to and exits from the haven of his wheelchair have much significance, both in terms of plot development and of character development. And some of the banter among the gang members is reasonably funny, if not always well-delivered.
On that score, I caught the play on opening night, where there were evidently a number of true believers in the cast or author or company in the audience. These supporters were laughing loudly and hysterically when anything vaguely resembling a joke was cracked. This behavior is less supportive than it might appear on the surface, because the playwright, the cast, and the director are thereby deprived of the kind of feedback a real audience would provide, which would have been less enthusiastic. As much hard work as evidently went into this show, the cast needed to put in more, they have only a few performances in which to apply what they have learned, and these supporters mess up the learning curve.
I have written in praise of Mobtown before and no doubt will again. And there needs to be acknowledgment of Mobtown’s eagerness to give emerging playwrights a chance. But a chance to succeed must necessarily be a chance to fail, and this show plays about as well as the heist it depicts.
Come Out and Say It, by Erica Smith, directed by Brent Englar, at The Mobtown Theater at Meadow Mill 3600 Clipper Mill Road, Ste. 114, Baltimore, MD 21211, through July 28. Tickets $15. Tickets@MobtownPlayers.com. Language and violence. Not suitable for small children.