‘The Shoplifters’ at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater

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The under-affluent of this country find small change on America’s stages: under-represented more often than not, they are the butt of jokes and edgy satires and, on DC stages, are presented as buffoons and considerably less intelligent than their affluent neighbors. Given the fact that they make up the majority of the country and do much to keep daily life as satisfying as it usually is for the affluent among us, this reality reflects more the attitude of the American theatrical gate-keepers than artists themselves.

(L to R) Jayne Houdyshell (Alma) and Jenna Sokolowski (Phyllis). Photo by Teresa Wood.
(L to R) Jayne Houdyshell (Alma) and Jenna Sokolowski (Phyllis). Photo by Teresa Wood.

Fortunately, in other countries, the under-affluent find representation and a voice, even if most frequently a comic one.

Arena Stage’s new comedy, The Shoplifters, is a Canadian import, written and directed by Morris Panych. The show reveals an empathetic perspective toward all those folks who simply cannot function as respectable consumers.

Whereas most of the under-affluent simply do not consume much of anything, there are quite a few of this class of people who stuff their coats, purses, and apparently their outsized underwear with everything from cake mixes to eggs to sugar and nail files.

The Shoplifters is a delightfully sitcom-esque evening of cops and robbers turned on its head.

Lead by the infinitely watchable Jayne Houdyshell as Alma, the epitome of shoplifters everywhere, Shoplifters takes its audience down the rabbit hole so to speak where the accused outwit the enforcers and the enforcers don’t turn thuggishly brutal in response.

Ms. Houdyshell’s Alma is not only tough as nails and wise as an owl, but she also has a heart of gold. And, yes, as written by Panych, she is flush with stereotypical possibilities but Houdyshell pulls all those angles together to create the fresh if weathered face of the anti-corporate, non-violent insurgent. She never met a two-inch steak she didn’t want to pilfer and consume.

Her partner in crime–as in, you can’t have a heaven without a hell–is security guard Otto, played with marvelous authenticity by Delaney Williams. Like any security guard who really wants another job, Otto falls in love with the object of his duty, the thief. Instead of apprehending criminals, he studies them like a research scientist. At first, he hankers after their motives, but soon become more than fascinated by their ploys.

As the play opens Alma’s desire for a rich man’s meal has led her to the gourmet meat department. Unfortunately, the two-sided tape designed to keep a super-sized Rib Eye between your thighs fails. Soon she finds herself imprisoned in the supermarket’s chilly stock room.

Whereas her admirer Otto would have, so to speak,  turned the other cheek, his security guard-in-training, Dom, has the zeal of a true crime fighting evangelist. Adi Stein brings this born-again guard to effervescent life with a youthful vigor. Always ready to provoke a confrontation, his Dom resembles one of those yappy terriers more than a pit bull.

Fortunately, both of these guards do not come strapping guns (only a Taser) or otherwise this comic situation would have evoked all those recent tragic events involving the killing of unarmed citizens by over-enthusiastic men in blue  (also, of course, the citizens in this play are women and white).

And that brings us to the final character of the evening, Phyllis, performed with more twitches and twiddles than an alley cat has fleas by Jenna Sokolowski. If there ever were a character that you could simply sit back and watch all night, it is Ms. Sokolowski’s Phyllis. Her twisted conversion to Jesus is hilariously believable; also, she performs the most amazing magic act when she pulls an entire grocery store out from under her billowing skirt.

Director-writer Panych does a first rate job with the direction of the show, always balancing the considerable comic potential of the situation with its characters’ need for sympathetic authenticity. In other words, the characters almost always avoid the pitfalls of becoming caricatures of themselves.

Set and Costume Designer Ken MacDonald has created one of the most remarkable sets that this reviewer has seen in awhile. Constructed out of cardboard boxes and rising like a city skyline behind the actors, this icon of consumer society is ever present and forever blocking out the sun.

Nancy Schertler has done her always impressive lighting design–the window displays of dishwashing liquids and pork and beans were a particularly impressive addition.

Sound Designer and Composer David Van Tieghem added just the right contemporary notes to scene changes and opening salvos.

(L to R) Adi Stein (Dom) and Delaney Williams (Otto). Photo by Teresa Wood.
(L to R) Adi Stein (Dom) and Delaney Williams (Otto). Photo by Teresa Wood.

So, if you want to experience life from the petty criminal’s point-of-view–and, yes, most folks do call shoplifting a criminal act and most teenagers in DC get in trouble when they get caught–scoot on down to Arena Stage. The Shoplifters will entertain, and it might even help take the edge off your hyped-up notion of the bottom line and what it means to battle crime.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, plus an intermission.

The Shoplifters plays through October 19, 2014 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater-1101 Sixth Street, SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.