"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.
In general we are focused on the turbulent, traumatic summer before college of Allegra (Marnie Schulenberg), who despite having nearly everything going for her can’t seem to break herself out of a nearly permanent funk. Everyone around her senses her purity and naïveté, but all react to it differently, be it her wild childhood friend Suzy (Maria Portman Kelly), who admires the kind of lifestyle Allegra is able to maintain (great college, great boyfriend, great resources), or her dimwitted boyfriend Bobby (Zack Robidas), whose resentment of Allegra is backed by the same societal logic that lets Marco know he will get away with his crimes.
While society may simply allow Marco to get away with horrific acts, his own reasoning is more complex. A cross between a poet, philosopher, and sociopath, Marco is the only character who understands the realities of the value of beauty in today’s society, and he is as disgusted by that valuation as he is drawn to it. When we first meet Marco, he claims to be “retired” from his job of stealing beautiful things. By the end, he’s committed the most horrific kind of theft imaginable. Like Roy Cohn in Angels in America, Marco is the only one in the play with the courage and shamelessness to exploit a cultural weakness that is vulnerable to exploitation. The last time I saw d’Amour, he was putting his hyper-gruff voice and attitude into a comedic context in last summer’s exceptional, underrated What To Do When You Hate All Your Friends. Here he’s taken that persona to its natural extreme, and I’ll be damned if d’Amour doesn’t give one of the better performances as a villain I’ve seen all year.
Yet we never really get full resolution of the fates of Marco, Allegra, or Suzy, possibly because Szymkowicz, like most male playwrights, downplays the psychology of rape, even as he explores the execution and societal significance of it in gruesome detail. Allegra and Suzy’s relationship, tone, and attitudes are constantly shifting, more a product of out-of-sync, inconsistent playwriting than a conscious attempt to regularly shift definitions of beauty.
What Szymkowicz does understand, however, is the effect socioeconomic scale has on standards of beauty. While Joe finds anything even remotely associated with ballerinas to be beautiful enough, and Allegra’s status awes Suzy, Allegra can never seem to win her mother’s approval, and Bobby is too jaded even to comprehend how breaking up with Allegra after her father’s death may be in poor taste. Even in his evilness, however, Marco is able to see Allegra’s combination of physical, intellectual, and emotional beauty with a clearer eye than anyone else in the play. Ultimately, the most irredeemable character ends up saving the play by bringing Szymkowicz’s message home. Whatever flaws exist in Pretty Theft, it is certainly fascinating, even when ethically dubious. For a play meant to examine exactly that conundrum, I suppose that is all that matters.
Pretty Theft is presented by the Flux Theatre and runs through May 17 at the Access Theater Gallery, 380 Broadway. Photos by Isaiah Tanenbaum.