The Living Room’s Bank Job isn’t a botch

Chaos doesn’t always make for good theater, but the Living Room finds a winning strain of it. The theater’s latest production, Bank Job, continues its relationship with playwright John Kolvenbach. The Living Room staged his 2003 drama, On an Average Day, last season, and his new script plumbs similar themes: toxic love, paternal abandonment and the fraternal bond that grows to fill the void.

But Bank Job couldn’t be more different in tone. The comedy opens in the “executive washroom” of a bank that brothers Russell (Matt Weiss) and Tracey (Rusty Sneary) have just robbed. The two burst through the doors, high on adrenaline, ready to hoist duffels of cash out of the bathroom window and climb to freedom.

Minor snag: The window’s been bricked over.

Major snag: They’re not alone.

Directors Katie Gilchrist and Scott Cordes tune the script to the key of farce with sight gags, slamming doors and smartly choreographed trips and falls. Weiss and Sneary, who co-starred in On an Average Day, capitalize again on their stage chemistry (and their resistance to bruising) in performances that maintain precision at fever pitch. Weiss is especially affecting as Russell, the dimwitted but defensive younger brother.

Shawnna Journagan, who more often works behind the scenes at the Living Room, earns big laughs with a quietly expressive performance as Jill, a bank teller hiding in one of the bathroom stalls. Gary Neal Johnson lends a con artist’s charisma to the boys’ crooked father, Francis, and Harvey Williams balances the brothers’ frenetic energy as the easygoing Officer James (though some verbal stumbles the night I saw the show made his scenes seem under-rehearsed).

Kolvenbach’s strength as a humorist is structure: His plays are packed with running gags and intricate riffs that color his plots like cymbal crashes. The first half of the play races along without a hitch, its jokes, when they come, endemic to the circumstances. Tracey can’t stop braying about betraying his pedigree (“I’m a doctor!” he shouts, helplessly and constantly). Russell can’t stop reciting their escape plan, which he has worried into singsong couplets. Gilchrist and Cordes build momentum with smart blocking that lets the brothers spar as they pace the washroom and brainstorm alternate routes. (The angled, asymmetrical set — designed by Adam Terry, Kyle Dyck and Matt Weiss — helps.)

But as the play rolls on, the script starts to seem as underbaked as Russell and Tracey’s heist plans. When the brothers abandon the washroom to attempt “Plan B,” Jill and Officer James connect in a stilted interlude packed with confessional monologues. Jill’s “dreaming in color” speech, delivered apropos of nothing, is simultaneously overwritten and underdeveloped; Officer Dale responds with an unsolicited statement of purpose about his ex-wives and fertility struggles. This is exploratory background writing, not final-draft material.  

The pace picks up when the brothers return (with their father in literal tow), but the script never quite manages to find its footing. Russell rips through increasingly ridiculous (and hilarious) backup plans, but the rest of the cast enters some sort of fugue state, unmoored from given circumstances. Francis launches into a fireside chat about his petty-theft exploits, Jill makes doe eyes at her new beau, and Officer James seems to let go of every ambition but color commentary. Only Tracey seems to notice a SWAT team barreling through the bank’s entrance (aided by David Kiehl’s sound design).

At one point, James interrupts the fracas to helpfully recap the discussion and remind the brothers of their objective: Get out of the bathroom.

Oh, we think. Right.

Still, for all its rough edges, Bank Job is tirelessly charming. Too many modern comedies derive humor from sneering. We laugh at the atrocious behavior of delusional narcissists and feel a little smug about the gulf between us. Kolvenbach gives us something fresher: a play full of likable characters, driven to destruction by love. When the brothers discover they’ve been duped, they turn toward each other for comfort instead of lashing out. When Russell debuts his idiotic “Plan C,” his father insists that the company suspend their mockery to appreciate the rhythm of his prose.
The result is a messy but warmhearted race to the finish — a play that, much like the heist at its center, errs a little in the execution.

Bank Job
Through July 3 at the Living Room, 1818 McGee, 816-533-5857,

Categories: A&E, Stage