"You are sitting in an empty bar (in a town you’ve never before visited), drinking Bacardi with a soft-spoken acquaintance you barely know. After an hour, a third individual walks into the tavern and sits by himself, and you ask your acquaintance who the new man is. 'Be careful of that guy,' you are told. 'He is a man with a past.' A few minutes later, a fourth person enters the bar; he also sits alone. You ask your acquaintance who this new individual is. 'Be careful of that guy, too,' he says. 'He is a man with no past.'
"Which of these two people do you trust less?"
- Chuck Klosterman
It doesn’t take much philosophical wisdom to see that a bad boy who doesn’t play by the rules is always more sexy than a neurotic nerd who draws within the lines. Yet the bad boys are not just the types you don’t take home to mother—they’re often the types who will commit the most horrible atrocities, yet will always be popular, or at least fascinating, in the public eye. Ted Bundy’s trial was filled with women giving him love letters and wedding proposals. CNN cuts from serious discussion of the war in Iraq to sensationalist chasing of Paris Hilton. The allure of a pure, romantic view of beauty is so powerful that it taints and corrupts anyone who possesses it.
Pretty Theft, a new play by prolific playwright Adam Szymkowicz, clearly identifies with this problem, and wrestles with it throughout. At the center of Pretty Theft’s epic struggle is Joe (Brian Pracht), “a man with no past,” who lives a preposterously sheltered life in an assisted living facility, subjected to harsh, traumatic treatment if he so much as kisses the one beautiful person who takes an interest in him. On the other side, we have Marco (Todd d’Amour), the “man with a past” who can steal beautiful things with ease, be it by stealing a painting or raping a teenage girl, and knows with utter conviction he will never be caught.
Szymkowicz loosely based Pretty Theft on Charles Mee’s Hotel Cassiopeia, which examined the glorified life of box artist Joseph Cornell. After seeing Hotel Cassiopeia at the Court Theatre in 2006, I was disgusted by how the precision of the SITI company could be applied to a play that was so aimless in its examination of a celebrated artist’s life. Conversely, Pretty Theft, which only takes from Cassiopeia the character named “Joe” who is fascinated by ballerinas, has a relatively clear and larger thematic aim: the simultaneous allure and danger of beauty. Yet Szymkowicz, who is a more enthusiastic but less precise playwright than Mee, can’t seem to find a way to bring it all together. Pretty Theft is an admirably ambitious play, but one that can’t find a center to bring it all together. Part of the problem is utilizing eight actors and even more characters. By trying to tell each character’s story, he loses us along the way.