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Plainclothes
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2018-11-19

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Playwright: Spenser Davis

At: Broken Nose Theatre @ The Den, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: BrokenNoseTheatre.com; pay-what-you-can. Runs through: Dec. 15

Plainclothes is a comedy with a message, although the message is uncertain as audiences may draw interpretations unintended, I suspect, by author Spenser Davis. Baby Boomers ( me ) may see Plainclothes as a statement about irresponsible, immature millennials, since the play's lead characters are perpetually squabbling, self-interested and distrustful. Closer to the mark, yet perhaps not intended, this world premiere appears to concern crypto-fascism by faceless corporate bureaucracy in Trumpian America.

The story, however, is about several mostly-young department store employees working in poor conditions to catch shoplifters. They wear street clothes to blend in with customers. Like a fictional movie platoon, there's one of everything: white guy, Asian woman, Latinx guy ( well, Hispanic Cuban ) and a Black-identifying mixed-race woman along with other store employees, uniformed guards and perps. White supervisor Bobby ( Adam Soule ) bends over backwards to avoid racist behavior although others manipulate race cards, but when Bobby is promoted, Asian T ( Stephanie Shum ) is certain it's at the expense of mixed-race Karina ( Carmen Molina ). Eventually T chooses to confront unseen store bureaucracy which triggers a catastrophe for nearly everyone. But not right away. T—who is excitable verging on out-of-control—is complicit in a significant cover-up by the security team. Her sudden attack of ethics months later seems motivated by her war with store management, but clearly connects to her views on workplace racism and Bobby.

For all that, Plainclothes turns serious only late in the game. The cover-up isn't revealed until Act II and the precipitating incident—occurring offstage early in Act I—receives no more emphasis than anything else, such as introducing a serial shoplifter nicknamed Booty Shorts ( personable Ben F. Locke ) for his provocative dress. Most of Act I plays like sitcom with comic riffs about/between the characters, who engage us as personalities or types rather than real people. Co-directors Kanome Jones and Davis keep it energetic, fast and funny, with pop culture references whizzing by which I didn't get but younger audience members did. Alejandro Tey ( the Cubano ) and Rob Frankel ( store exec Jim ) are excellent supporting actors in a capable ensemble.

Davis clearly has writing and directing chops—he sets up situations well, understands pacing and writes good dialogue—but Plainclothes would be stronger performed in one act with more emphasis earlier on the cover-up, which now comes arbitrarily out of left field. Also, characters must say each other's names early and often—Playwriting 101—since the program doesn't list them in order of appearance. Finally, a subplot between Booty Shorts and Mary, an older store employee ( astutely performed by RjW Mays ), is extremely effective but unconnected to the plot ( although it has to do with racism ). Can it be made intrinsic to plot?


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