Arts & Culture

‘Heist Play’ subverts Hollywood tropes

Student-written and -directed performance uses innovative staging to shift moods across acts

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, December 5, 2014

The perfect play bears a striking resemblance to the perfect crime — ever-adapting, prone to explosions and often more illusion than reality.

In stealing $30 million from a locked bank vault in a job riddled with mishaps, Sock and Buskin’s “Heist Play” exemplifies the fluidity of the perfect, eponymous heist. Yet its characters, with their frequent struggles, mistakes and misfires, can’t quite realize that perfection.

“Heist Play,” which debuted as a workshop performance Thursday, offers a snapshot of a self-critical artistic piece striving for an eventual end result that it has not yet attained.

Skylar Fox ’15 has written and directed the show over the course of the last two months, allowing his talented slew of actors to steer the production toward a potential second reimagining after its appearance at Brown. The play offers three acts — each one as starkly different from the next as the highly specialized talents of the heist crew members. In fact, the title masks the true intentions of the story. While the first act conforms to audience expectations of a slick Rat Pack endeavor, the second two subvert these tropes, evolving into a dark look at existential motivations — quite literally what motivates us to live. Thieves capable of the perfect take also live outside of the heist itself, and “Heist Play” serves as a backstage look into the parts of the story not sexy enough for Hollywood.

The heist itself is as aesthetically enjoyable an experience as can grace a college stage. In the intimate Leeds Theater, characters whir down the aisles and up into the catwalks. They leave the safety of center stage for both the scene of the crime and the fourth wall, handling each peril with nonchalant grace. Plays of this globe-trotting scope are rare — a consequence of budget limitations everywhere except the apex of Broadway. But “Heist Play” does not shy away from this complication: Its actors stutter-step — quite inexpensively — around stage to signify location change. But the show’s true claim to innovation lies in its pragmatic use of video to both move the plot along and mock the comically mugged character introductions endemic to high-testosterone action flicks. As the crew assembles and embarks on its “impossible” task, it is clear that experts are at work. But after the heist, when the team triumphantly struts through a cloud of smoke with millions in tow, it is unclear whether the thieves or production crew are more deserving of the glory.

But for those familiar with these action flicks, the beauty of watching such a technically innovative heist unfold only serves to underscore the disappointment of thematic deja vu. It is difficult to plant a brand new flag in a genre like crime that has been so thoroughly examined in storytelling through the ages, but where the play could embrace subtle twists on the genre, it embraces George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, circa 2001. The similarities to “Ocean’s Eleven” are striking, and while this impressive comparison will keep the uninitiated viewers in rapt attention, those who have seen that film — or other cornerstones of the genre — will wait in vain for originality.

Perhaps to make up for the routine affair of the first act, the second launches into the comedown of the fleeting high of the heist — a nice change of pace for the audience, if not so much for the adrenaline-junkie thieves who must now embrace the mundane. Act two fleshes out the characters in such a realistic and vulnerable manner that they almost seem incapable of the heroic performance of the previous act. But the pendulum swings back a little bit too far from the high-octane thrills of the previous act — constantly bored or unhappy characters threaten to impose similar sentiments on the audience.

If the story swings between mundane and over-the-top, the finale finds the unexpected golden mean and sticks with it to an emotional and unsettling conclusion. We know the characters well enough to see ourselves in their handling of a tragedy.

The tonal shifts throughout the three acts are so drastic that it would only be considered a roller coaster ride at a theme park where roller coaster cars have no mandate to stay on the tracks. “Heist Play” takes us where it wants to go, and if the jump from our comfortable tracks is slightly too jarring, the promise of the workshopped play’s further development allows sufficient test rides to sacrifice a few overwhelmed customers.

Ultimately, as the production develops, “Heist Play” hopes to arrive at something that coheres just a little bit more, that toes the fine line between subversion and disconnect just as precisely as its stutter-stepping leads across the stage and across geographies. And then it will arrive again. And again, until those involved are ready to call it one last job.