By Nathaniel Cayanan
Many may have heard of the Stella Adler Academy in Hollywood and its notable alums — Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, and Robert De Niro, to name a few. But not as known are the often-overlooked productions that run in the academy’s small theatres where they exhibit the growing talent of some of their greatest pupils. Such is the case for the Stephen Adly Guirgis-written production, “Den of Thieves,” which opened earlier this month.
The play, directed by Alex Aves, follows an incompatible group of thieves composed of a recovering kleptomaniac, her over-idealistic sponsor, her Puerto Rican wannabe ex-boyfriend and his voluptuous stripper girlfriend. After inadvertently stealing $750 thousand dollars from the mob, the unlikely gang of crooks find themselves tied up, arguing about who should live and who should die at the hands of emerging gangster Little Tuna. While the plot offers nothing really revolutionary, from beginning to end, the back-and-forth between characters charms us with hilarious dialogue that doesn’t beg for our attention, but rather genuinely seduces us with its organic progression and humor.
But, such humor only really succeeds because of the production’s incredibly impressive cast who are able to take initially stock characters and add a certain level of uniqueness to them. While most in the cast are still considered students of the academy, their talent and professionalism, which we see even in their slightest gestures, really exhibit that these are more than capable actors. Their potential is especially apparent in the second half the play, when they must maintain the play’s energy despite being anchored by duct tape. And while the entire cast deserves kudos, two performers really stand out: Chris Petoski and Alexandra Lemus. Petoski, who plays the Puerto Rican wannabe, Flaco, brings animated comedy, making us laugh with his character’s charming slow-wittedness. Simultaneously, Lemus, who plays recovering kleptomaniac Maggie, corrals all of the silliness in, and grounds the play with her character’s very complex, truly human emotions.
Now, the Stella Adler venue may be quite small, and the sets quite minimal, but in every artistic aspect, this production is efficient and effective. With good written material, a strong cast and skilled direction, “Den of Thieves” delivers a lot of entertainment as we learn perhaps the most important lesson of the play: Don’t steal from the mob.
“Den of Thieves” will play for one more weekend at the Stella Adler Academy. 6773 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90028. Show days are Friday, May 29, and Saturday, May 30 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, May 31 at 7 p.m. $10 General Admission and $5 Students. Purchase tickets online at http://denofthieves.bpt.me or by calling (323) 873-5149.