Playing stupid isn’t easy. Writing, directing, and performing farce aren’t easy. Producing new plays is so hard, most theatres don’t do it, and that goes double for summer theatres. But in its 35th season, with its 56th world premiere, Big Criminals, The Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre makes it all look easy, rewarding its audience with a light, bright comedy that insults the intelligence of no one but the title characters — who spend much of the evening insulting the intelligence of themselves and each other, for good reason.
Young Dekker (Bradshaw Call), middle-aged mastermind Marty (Michael Mattison), and slightly older Pants (Ben Starr Coates) aren’t criminals at all. They’re school crossing guards —Dekker because he might not be bright enough for any other line of work, Marty because of missteps in a sad-sack life, and Pants in part because he misses his wife, who comes to play an important role despite having died a dozen years earlier. Though all three men like being crossing guards because they care about the kids, they dream of escaping their little desert town for a ranch, and have decided to get their grubstake — not much, really; just the down payment — by kidnapping and ransoming a six-year-old girl who’s driven to school each day in a limousine.
Their plan is simple enough: Pants will hold up his stop sign, Marty will knock out the driver, and Dekker will grab the girl. But as they rehearse the plot repeatedly in packrat Marty’s rundown house, it’s clear that the plan is too simple, and the would-be kidnappers are too simpleminded to get away with it. More important, they’re too tenderhearted: just a mention of the girl’s name — Nina — almost makes them call the whole thing off. They do go ahead with it, though, and that tenderheartedness proves both their downfall and their salvation.
Almost everything that can go wrong does (and should remain a surprise), and each ill-considered reaction to ever-changing circumstances deepens their dilemma. When the trio decides to disguise their identities by calling themselves Moe, Larry and Curly, they hit on an essential truth: they are The Three Stooges (though the physical abuse they inflict upon themselves occurs offstage). They just can’t do anything right — even turn themselves in — and dumb luck is the cavalry that rides to the rescue. The question all three must ponder in the end, however thick-wittedly, is whether deciding to be true to their essential selves hasn’t earned them that luck.
These are difficult roles to pull off, and the actors give a fine ensemble performance that will only get better as they settle into their two-week run. Call may have the hardest job, since Dekker’s the dimmest of these dim bulbs (think of him as Curly); he handles it with panache, and it’s a real pleasure to watch the occasional idea manifest itself fleetingly on his face. Mattison, as Marty (or Moe), does a terrific job of trying to wrangle the other two nudniks, but he’s even better trying to master himself and his past; he also makes a first-class drunk, which also isn’t easy. Coates, as Pants (or possibly Larry), makes the most of his comparatively reflective role, and he doesn’t miss a laugh, either.
Director John Moon fully understands this style of comedy and its need for a high degree of stylization; that he gets these actors to appear to occupy the same artificial universe is no small feat. He fully understands the play, too, and with a sure hand draws out all its comedy and pathos. He’s also worked well with his design team, getting a few laughs even from the fully realized set and one costume in particular.
Playwright Wisniewski has had a number of his plays produced previously, and though this is the first production of his first script for the stage, you’d never know it. He adapted Big Criminals from one of his screenplays, and you’d never know that, either. The play is fully stage-worthy: clever, unpretentiously thoughtful, well-constructed and chock-a-block with plot twists and zingers. Even if the humor rarely strays from the norms of the traditional sitcom, Big Criminals has a bigger heart and surprisingly rich characterization. Despite a loose thread or two, and an ever so slightly wobbly ending, it’s enjoyable fare that could well have an extended life on resident stages nationwide.
Big Criminals, a new comedy by Steve Wisniewski. Directed by John Moon. Set design by Richard Seagle. Lighting design by Robert C. Berls. Costume design by Leigh Margaret Manning. With Bradshaw Call (Dekker), Ben Starr Coates (Pants) and Michael Mattison (Marty).