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Heist Comedy Scores Laughs


Many modern playwrights seem fixated on plumbing society's lower depths, dredging up as much angst, anger and amorality as they can, then wallowing in the subterranean squalor.

The in-your-face dramas that typically result can seem depressingly rote. "Den of Thieves" at the Black Dahlia Theatre has subterranean squalor aplenty, lots of gritty language and the requisite bevy of desperate losers. However, if you thought this West Coast premiere of Stephen Adly Guirgis' play was going to puddle along the same familiar sewer, think again.

Guirgis, who has recently generated a fair amount of heat with productions of his play "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train" at London's Donmar Warehouse and Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, defies expectations with his tale of criminally minded New York City have-nots involved in an ill-considered heist. Of course, the heist goes disastrously awry, the mob gets miffed, and vengeance looms. Although it ultimately softens into a farfetched happy ending, the story unfolds with crackling comic propulsion and a screwball sweetness as unexpected as it is welcome.

As the action opens, the compulsive and depressed Maggie (Ana Ortiz) is getting an emergency pep talk from Paul (Russell G. Jones), her 12-step sponsor. A recovering klepto and overeater, Maggie has just stolen a backpack full of junk food. Paul, himself in recovery for just about everything, is pleading with Maggie to relinquish her ill-gotten Yodels when Flaco (Trevor Long), Maggie's crack-fueled ex, bursts onto the scene with a supposedly sure-fire scheme to rob an area disco.

The criminal quartet, which includes Flaco's hard-bodied new floozy, Boochie (Elizabeth Rodriguez), runs immediately afoul of Lou, a.k.a. Little Tuna (Marco Greco), a reluctant mobster whose crime-lord father, Big Tuna (Ronald Hunter), is out of town. Sadistic Sal (Bruno Gioiello), Lou's cousin and underling, is itching to murder the entire gang. However, soft-hearted Lou, who needs a body (and three thumbs) to satisfy his father's sanguinary expectations, decides to kill only one--the victim to be determined by the crooks themselves.

Heavy on the exposition, the chatty first act sets up the explosively funny second act, which opens with a hilarious sight gag that establishes the tone for the rest of the show.

Matt Shakman, who helmed last season's award-winning "Orson's Shadow," proves once again that he is a formidable actor's director with a keen sense of comic rhythm. With the exception of Ortiz, an appealing actress who nonetheless seems overly subdued and glum in this context, the performers go gleefully over the top in pursuit of laughs.

Kelly Hanson's set, which starts out as a tiny tenement apartment, then deepens into a spacious nightclub lobby, is yet another impressive aspect of this thoroughly impressive production.

"Den of Thieves," Black Dahlia Theatre, 5453 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends May 5. $15. (323) 525-0070. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

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