Review: ‘Sh*theads’ at Azuka Theatre

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The characters in Sh*theads don’t mind being called shitheads. True, that may not be a word you’d use in polite company… but these people aren’t polite company.

Harry Watermeier, Akeem Davis & Charlotte Northeast. Photo by Johanna Austin/AustinArt.org.

Harry Watermeier, Akeem Davis, and Charlotte Northeast. Photo by Johanna Austin/AustinArt.org.

They’re the employees of Bert’s Bikes, a feisty, independent bike shop in the trendy Chelsea section of Manhattan, and they’ve twisted that word and made it something to be proud of. It’s a word they call themselves, a way of bonding together in an exclusive brotherhood (and sisterhood). To them, being called a shithead is “the highest honor we got.”

They’re smart, and they’re skilled – manager Alex is, according to a co-worker, “one of the top three mechanics in the city.” Alex and his employees are certain that they give better service than their competitors. But life is difficult for small businesses. Alex is fighting hard to keep the store viable, but are he and his crew doing the right thing by sticking at it?

Douglas Williams’ play, a world premiere at Azuka Theatre, makes you understand why people like working, shopping, and just hanging out at places like Bert’s. Williams’ script is full of raucously funny (and profane) lines and some deeply textured characters. And Kevin Glaccum’s spot-on, fast-paced direction establishes a convincing sense of camaraderie between the characters – the kind that you’re likely to find in a struggling store.

Little by little, Corporate America is encroaching on business at Bert’s. A rival store across the street, part of a big chain, is beating them on prices, making it hard for Bert’s to compete. Bert’s itself is now owned by Mike, a distant, unseen businessman and the son of the store’s late founder. Mike’s idea of management is to send the staff a guidebook about company protocol. (Alex glances at the guidebook and says “He spelled ‘protocol’ wrong – Mike is losing it.”)

Mike doesn’t understand the bike business, and now he’s proved it by hiring Brandon, a college kid who has bluffed his way into a sales job after being fired from an internship. Brandon knows nothing about bikes; he confesses to Alex that he doesn’t even own a bike. And now Alex, plus his fellow mechanic Izzy (who delights in teasing and hazing the naïve Brandon), have to quickly teach him the ropes (and chains, and bolts).

Meanwhile, Alex has come up with a surefire way to drum up business – and it involves getting one of the hottest new bike models into the store. But this bike may be too hot for a tiny place like Bert’s to handle.

Akeem Davis & Charlotte Northeast. Photo by Johanna Austin/AustinArt.org.

Akeem Davis & Charlotte Northeast. Photo by Johanna Austin/AustinArt.org.

Sh*theads is at its best when it focuses on the characters and their interactions. A character like the hustling, wisecracking Izzy, who has been repeatedly threatening to quit for about twenty years but can’t quite break away, has the ring of reality. So does the playwright’s affection for a type of work, and workplace, that’s is slowly being killed by economic pressures.

But two of the characters – Brandon and the in-again, out-again customer known as Spider – are frustratingly enigmatic. Brandon is a goofball at first, but as we watch him mature, we also learn that he has a dark side. Yet even though Brandon keeps revealing more and more about his troubling background, his actions are never as upsetting as Williams threatens that they might be. And a promising subplot about Brandon’s dreams of becoming a writer gets choked off before it can go anywhere. Spider, meanwhile, is so stoned and habitually taciturn that his relationship to the staff is frustratingly vague.

And the characters’ motivations are poorly defined. Plot twists near the end of the play involving Izzy, Brandon and Spider stretch credulity; they’re not believable coming from the characters we’ve gotten to know for nearly 90 minutes.

Akeem Davis plays Alex with a directness that suits the character well. His Alex is practical, grounded and admirable; he demands a lot of his staff but doesn’t push them unreasonably, and it’s easy to sympathize with him when he gets pushed to his limit. His frustration at his co-workers, and himself, during the final scene is palpable. Charlotte Northeast is a good contrast to him as Izzy, lightening the mood with a robust and boisterous comic style.

Harry Watermeier gives a wonderfully awkward performance as Brandon, showing off a flair for physical comedy. During the early scenes, he reacts to every surprise with a violent jerk of his body – which is later, after Brandon grows acquires more confidence, replaced by a blatantly ridiculous swagger. And David Pica’s Spider gets a good share of the laugh lines, and lands them all.

Natalie de la Torre’s costumes define the characters well, from Alex and Izzy’s built-for-comfort casual wear to the khaki pants that mark Brandon as a college boy who doesn’t belong in this hipster paradise. (In one of Williams’ best twists, Alex’s scorn for those khakis comes to haunt him.)

It’s all played out on the most elaborate set Azuka has ever used. Apollo Mark Weaver has designed a bike store that has all the models that any customer could want and all the instruments that any mechanic could need. Every detail looks gloriously right.

Sh*theads is an excellent, highly enjoyable play. By focusing on working people struggling to get by while remaining true to their ideals, Williams evokes a vanishing way of life with affection, authenticity, and a lot of laughs.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Sh*theads plays through March 12, 2017, at Azuka Theatre performing at The Louis Bluver Theatre at The Drake – 302 South Hicks Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, purchase them at the door or online.

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