When a character trying hard to be eccentric has to ask “Do you think I’m peculiar?,” the answer from this side of the stage too often must be “Not as much you apparently do.” Such is the case with Lyle Kessler’s entire play, “Robbers,” a dark, offbeat comedy-drama that spends more than two hours pleading to be peculiar.
With a strong cast headed by Michael Rapaport, “Robbers” occasionally seems as if its sometimes amusing quirks might add up to something — there’s much portentous music and an ominous mood set by director Marshall W. Mason — but the play’s theme of transmutable identities goes nowhere that the audience doesn’t get to first.
Rapaport plays Ted, a smart if rather hapless Brooklynite living with his gruff, working-class father in a small Flatbush apartment. We see them for only one brief scene before Ted is sent by the father to track down the man who left a bag of garbage at their doorstep. “Find out what makes him tick,” Pop (John Doman) instructs Ted in the type of low-level absurdity that runs through the play.
The culprit is a man named Feathers (Jonathan Hadary), a Mohican Indian with straight black hair that falls midway down his back and who frets over a dead blade of grass stuck to the bottom of Ted’s shoe — “Poor thing,” he says. Soon enough, Ted is in the employ of Feathers, a private detective, and sent to work undercover at a canning factory where employees are pilfering large quantities of canned ham, turkey and other foods. He encounters the factory owner (also played by Hadary), a nasty, paranoid man who adopts a new religion (and its elaborate costumes) with alarming (and supposedly comic) regularity, and the owner’s daughter, a lusty type who mimics the oft-changing cultural garb of her father’s whims.
As Ted discovers a talent for undercover work — and the self-confidence it brings — he befriends a factory co-worker (Paul Ben-Victor) and falls in love with another (Elizabeth Rodriguez).
Despite his newfound skills, Ted grows increasingly distraught at having to betray his new friends. Having abandoned his old identity, he cares for his new one even less. “You have no name,” Feathers tells a broken Ted late in the play. “You have no identity.”
That the mysterious Feathers’ own identity is a ruse will come as no surprise to the audience, but even more troublesome to the play is that we’re given scant impression of Ted’s persona prior to his change, so his loss — what, exactly, did he lose? — barely registers. The various plot twists are more contrived than absurd, and the attempts at outright comedy (usually involving the owner’s annoying daughter) don’t jibe with the rather sinister tone of Mason’s direction.
The production would be even less effective were it not for Rapaport’s likable, textured performance. Hadary, in the dual roles of Feathers and the factory owner, is appropriately malevolent. Rest of the cast is fair, if unexceptional. Loren S. Sherman’s set, which makes good use of a revolve, is more effective than attractive.