The Shoplifters, Morris Panych’s 2014 comedy having its West Coast premiere at the Victory Theatre in Burbank, tries to put a goofy spin on some not-so-funny topics: high-strung rookie cops, overzealous right-wing Christians and the San Andreas Fault–sized gap between the rich and poor. This last point is epitomized by Alma, a middle-aged white lady apprehended by grocery store security guards for attempting to smuggle a 16-ounce rib-eye between her legs.
But while the play trifles with “saying something” about the state of the haves and the have-nots, big guy versus little guy, its philosophy remains muddy, as do its characters’ motivations and backstories. Director Maria Gobetti’s cast of four tries to rise to the challenge of their broad characters, but both the comedy and its major plot points end up feeling forced.
This staging’s most satisfying presence is Kathleen Bailey as Alma, a smart, ballsy broad giving the runaround to Dom (Alex Genther), the twitchy greenhorn who has detained her. Bailey hits just the right blend of cool-headed conceit and charismatic vulnerability, qualities she deploys to rein in her accomplice, Phyllis (Wendy Johnson), a loony 32-year-old coat-check girl. Johnson’s facial expressions and bright lipstick accentuate her prominent eyes and wide smile. Her girlish, rolled-down socks and bizarre outbursts make Phyllis a generally off-kilter presence.
The lady thieves are paralleled by Dom and his partner, Otto (Steve Hofvendahl), an even-tempered, senior colleague who's being let go after three decades on the job. Like Alma, Otto steadies his junior’s erratic impulses; Genther’s tall, lanky frame underscores the physical and temperamental differences between the two men.
Before too long, this mirroring grows monotonous. When the pairs reshuffle — Dom is paired up with Phyllis to extract a confession — there’s a little too much crazy to go around. Otto and Alma have their own meeting of the minds, but their vague philosophical discussion always feels undercooked. A crucial detail of Alma’s biography is only hinted at, leaving her motives and the true significance of her actions ambiguous — and making her abrupt romance with Otto feel contrived. The play tries to make a case for the moral gray area involved when needy people take from institutions that can afford to give, but Alma refuses to cop to her crime. In the end, she eludes us as well.
Victory Theatre Center, 3326 W. Burbank Blvd., Burbank; through Dec. 20. (818) 841-4404; thevictorytheatrecenter.org.