Has playwright Lyle Kessler mislaid the promise he showed with “Orphans” 10 years ago, or is it possible that “Robbers” is a callow pre-“Orphans” piece of juvenilia Kessler has unwisely let loose from his bottom drawer? Whichever, it plays more like unproduceable screenplay than acceptable piece of theater. And it’s bound to offend some Long Wharf audience members, as it clearly did at the performance seen.
The word “wacky” is used in the company’s publicity for “Robbers,” and it’s possible that a truly wild way-out-comedy production of it might make it somewhat more palatable. But neither director Marshall W. Mason nor his at-sea cast seem to have any more idea of what they’re doing than Kessler has. The result is a stilted, lifeless series of cinematically conceived brief scenes that have no cumulative impact, pulse or lifeblood. “Robbers” dies aborning.
God and Schopenhauer are mentioned in its first few minutes. Kafka comes up later. And indeed, as was true of “Orphans,” there’s an attempt at creating a Kafkaesque nightmare in “Robbers.” But whereas Kessler succeeded in his earlier play, he fails here.
His pivotal character is Ted (Peter Rini), a gauche young man who opens the play dreaming about a mounted American-Indian warrior and who is under the thumb of a drunken slob of a father (Robert Hogan). A bag of garbage is dropped outside their Brooklyn door, an act that leads to Ted’s meeting a mysterious flowing-haired character named Feathers (Judd Hirsch) who claims to be a Mohican (not the last of them, he makes clear). He hires Ted as the newest member of his private-eye surveillance business.
Given the new name of Kenneth, Ted is sent off to infiltrate a canning factory at which more than a little canned food is being pilfered by its workers. Over the course of the play Ted, a nobody who blossoms into a somebody via his new persona, becomes the friend of at least one of his factory co-workers, Vinnie (Paul Ben-Victor), while falling in love with another, Cleo (Kira Arne). His dilemma now is whether he can name names to the factory’s owner (also played by Hirsch, for no compelling reason) when he’s become so closely involved with some of the pilferers. Meantime, in addition to sleeping with Cleo , Ted/Kenneth succumbs to the dubious charms of the factory owner’s ditzily neurotic daughter, Lucinda (an impossible role impossibly played by Katherine Hiler).
“Things are not what they seem” seems to be the mantra meant to inform “Robbers,” and Ted is asked to “penetrate reality.” But there’s no reality to penetrate, virtual or theatrical. Just a lot of silliness (including Ted doing impersonations of everyone from Sam Spade to Sherlock Holmes when he’s hired by Feathers) and tastelessness (including totally gratuitous male and female nudity and much unnecessary “strong”– i.e., weak — language).
Heavy-handed Hirsch, who, as the factory owner, changes religions and costumes almost daily, speaks his own obituary toward the play’s end:”I should have known better.”
Even the physical production isn’t up to Long Wharf standards — Loren Sherman’s drab-gray set, with its roll-on, roll-off set pieces and revolve, look unfinished, particularly when an tapestry rolls down on a tacky canvas backdrop meant to look like a wall (it got stuck at the performance seen). True, Sherman has the tough job of having to evoke many different interior and exterior locales throughout Brooklyn from Flatbush to Sheepshead Bay, but he hasn’t solved his problems. Nor has the production as a whole. It’s not helped by an overdose of incidental and scene-bridging movie music by Peter Kater.