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Amusing Experiment 

The entertaining 'Criminal Hearts' unites a burglar and her victim in an act of revenge

Ata wakes up one night to find an armed burglar stumbling around her high-priced Chicago condo. The lights come on; Ata is terrified, and the burglar is furious--the place was full of highly desirable goods when it had been cased a few days before, but now there's nothing but Ata, a mattress, piles of empty pizza cartons, a lifetime supply of Dr. Pepper, an electric pencil sharpener, a lifetime supply of pencils and a closetful of designer fashions.

It seems that Ata's husband, Wib, a chronic philanderer (not merely serial, but parallel), has, upon learning of Ata's single sexual indiscretion, made off with all their belongings. There's nothing left to steal.

Ata may be terrified in the presence of the burglar, but it's not just because she's about to become a crime statistic. "I have more problems than I should demographically have," she explains. Indeed, she's a tight little bundle of neuroses: agoraphobia, stress allergies, a compulsion to sharpen pencils for relaxation.

Turns out that the burglar, named Bo, is a woman, and of course, the two bond immediately. (Bo's incentive is that Ata has managed to wrest away her gun.) Before long, they're concocting a plan to steal back all the stuff from Wib.

That summarizes the first act of Criminal Hearts, the second production in Beowulf Alley's new space in the former Johnny Gibson building downtown. The second act becomes a bit more predictable, but also a bit more traditionally entertaining. Criminal Hearts starts out as a slightly edgy, self-consciously intellectual comedy, and ends up as a slightly mainstream show with a few serious turns.

Part hip, pop-psych farce, part social critique, part theater of the absurd, part screwball revenge fantasy, part con-artist caper (one way or another, almost every character is conning at least one of the others), Criminal Hearts can't quite decide what sort of play it wants to be, but its indecision creates a more interesting, less-clichéd work than it would have been had it settled into a single genre.

The play's success hinges on the chemistry between gullible Ata and cynical Bo, and Amy Almquist and Laura Miotke strike the right tone of wary mutual fascination.

Almquist is excellent at plumbing the depths of socialite Ata, a character who could have ended up as nothing more than a shallow, overage prom queen. Almquist has in the past proven expert in delivering a climactic monolog, and she is as fine as expected in Ata's vituperative outburst near the end (even though it begins unpromisingly with the line, "I am bemused by what has happened to me").

As Bo, Miotke, among other things, sidesteps a trap laid for her in the script; to pull off their caper, our criminals must don formal wear, something alien but ultimately attractive to Bo. She must change a bit in the second act, but not too much. Miotke is believably street-smart and butch in the first act, and just as believably street-smart and womanly in the second; she doesn't make the mistake of playing a new character after intermission. But what a difference a Dior makes.

Art Almquist--Amy's husband--plays Bo's criminal sidekick with a nod to Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski. Director Stephen Elton takes the stage for one scene as Wib; he's smooth and controlled, one of those bullies who effortlessly makes women feel like the problems are all their fault.

To cover a costume change, Elton engaged Leigh Ann Rangel to choreograph a little scene in which dancer Laura Reichhardt performs an interpretation of Ata's emotional state. This is a provocative idea, but it seems a little incongruous, since the dancer is never used again.

A good set by Fred Kinney and interesting but not too fussy lighting design by Elton and Bill Dell demonstrate the company's dedication to doing more than dropping actors into a black box.

Perhaps you've noticed that I haven't mentioned the playwright yet. The script is one of several credited to Jane Martin, who has never been seen or interviewed. "Jane Martin" is widely believed to be the pseudonym of writer-director Jon Jory, the man who adapted and directed Pride and Prejudice, now on the boards at Arizona Theatre Company.

Allow me to repeat a mini-rant that I posted last week at my blog, Cue Sheet, which you can find at www.kuatfm.org/jreel.

Here's what I find annoying amid all the speculation about Jory: People on the one hand posit that Jory uses the Jane Martin pseudonym to give himself credibility when writing about women and women's issues, yet on the other hand, they suggest that Jory can obtain the female perspective only by writing these plays in collaboration with some woman, perhaps his wife, who is a costume designer rather than a playwright.

It's ridiculous to think that a man can't write with intelligence and sensitivity about women. But there are people who maintain, stridently, that only women can write about women, African Americans about African Americans, and so forth. All I can say is that someone who lacks the imagination and empathy to write about someone other than himself or herself has no business being a playwright. And someone lacking the imagination and empathy to believe that playwrights can write about "the other" has no business criticizing those who can.

No matter who wrote Criminal Hearts, it's a bit of a hodge-podge that's not quite as intellectual as the big words in Act 1 would make it seem. But it is entertaining and at least a little thought-provoking, an amusing experiment in taking Thelma and Louise to their extremes.

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