“Do you think we’ll be assigned the same prison cell?” a terrified Russell (Leicester Landon) asks his brother and criminal accomplice Tracey (Marshall York) soon after the two have committed armed robbery. Russell obviously should’ve thought harder about accommodations in the federal pen before he and Tracey found themselves trapped in the executive washroom of the bank they’ve just held up. But playwright John Kolvenbach’s manic comedy of crisis adjustment Bank Job –– given a bighearted, jauntily paced world premiere by Amphibian Stage Productions –– is all about contingencies, adjustments, and last-minute changes of course. With considerable wit, the author explores the psychology of how we deal with traps and dead ends, whether they come from our own stupid choices or the screwed-up family that fate has handed us. A real-time caper about a codependent crew who hatch a robbery scheme job for ridiculous reasons that –– surprise! –– sounded plausible in the planning, Kolvenbach’s script is as tight and light-footed as Jessica Bauman’s direction. Still, audiences may suspect the playwright wanted to depict blood-relative dynamics with a little more depth than the current show plumbs.
With Bank Job, Fort Worth audiences get the rare treat of seeing a new and developing work by an established New York playwright. (The script will receive a staged reading this week by New York City’s Labyrinth Theater Company, the group co-founded by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.) It’s close to the truth to call the show a farce, though there’s very little room for door-slamming, cross-dressing shenanigans, considering that all the action takes place in a tony restroom (designed with spare, cold elegance by Bob Lavallee). Most of the boisterousness comes in Kolvenbach’s dialogue, which at its best has the tit-for-tat machine-gun rhythms of the late great playwright Ben Hecht (The Front Page). First-time bank robbers Russell and Tracey thought they’d be able to bag an easy $15 million with a fast job and inside connections. Their escape plan was carefully plotted to take them into said restroom, but the ceiling portal that was supposed to lead them to freedom has been bricked up. So there’s a serious betrayal hovering over all the frantic activity as the two thieves (who committed the crime wearing plastic, red-nosed Bozo the Clown masks) try to figure out what their next best option is.
A big source of the play’s laughs –– and they are plentiful in Amphibian’s high-wire production –– is that there’s not a next best option. As in a cross between Dog Day Afternoon and No Exit, Russell and Tracey are left to ponder all kinds of situational minutiae and pointless what-ifs. Other characters make unexpected appearances: the scene-stealing William Earl Ray as a fed-up security guard, Alexandra Lawrence as a lovelorn bank employee, and Michael Muller as a distinguished older gentleman with an iron emotional grip on the two bank-robbing felons. The less you know about everyone’s relationship to one another, the more fun you’ll have as each revelation adds a new twist of motivation to the characters’ desperate choices.
That said, Bank Job feels like it needs more gravitas in the backstories so that these people emerge as something more satisfying and memorable than chess pieces moved around a farce board. Scattered throughout the show are hints about the really dark side of familial devotion –– namely, the panic you feel when that blood loyalty suddenly becomes questionable and then gets yanked away altogether. That desperation surfaces with real rawness when a fear-stricken Russell asks Tracey the question I mentioned before: “Do you think we’ll be assigned the same prison cell?” It’s a childish thing for an aspiring felon to say, of course, but it’s also a powerful reminder of the irrational spell that family members can hold over us until the day we die. If Bank Job could manage to mine that universal pain without upsetting the comedy applecart, this show would really be worth making a federal case over.
Thru Sun, Mar 2, at Amphibian Stage Productions, 120 S Main St, FW. $25-30. 817-923-3012.