House Theatre’s ‘Thieves Like Us’ is fully loaded fun

Drawing straws before drawing guns: John Byrnes, Tom Hickey and Shawn Pfautsch in House Theatre of Chicago’s “Thieves Like Us.” [Photo credit: John Taflan]

“What’s your magic number?”

That’s what one character says to an amateur bank robber in Damon Kiely’s new play based on the novel by Edward Anderson, Thieves Like Us. What amount of money will pacify your greed card? Aren’t we all hungry people underneath our pious exteriors — we all want a piece of the pie? Just how far are we willing to go to get it?

It’s 1936, and a trio of bank robbers, ranging from seasoned to green, have escaped from a Mississippi chain gang. There’s T-Dub (Tom Hickey), a veteran with a 29 robberies to his credit, live wire Chicamaw (Shawn Pfautsch, who steals the show) and, our hero for the evening, Bowie Bowers (John Byrnes). They soon get to ransacking a series of banks, starting with minor busts and hoping to climb their way to the brass ring.

But Bowers doesn’t really have the heart for it — especially since it’s already been captured by tomboy farm gal Keechie (Paige Hoffman, looking a lot like Mary Stuart Masterson in “Fried Green Tomatoes”).

Bowers wants out. But try as he might, he’s now a celebrity. His face is plastered on the front page of all the papers. Trapped, Bowers and Keechie try to ride out the storm together.

Director Kimberly Senior creates a stylish, cinematic atmosphere that includes camera flashes, stunning scene transitions, tightly choreographed fight sequences and a surprisingly surreal epilogue. The only major misstep, in both script and scenework, is the relationship between Bowers and Keechie. It’s clear why Bowers likes Keechie — I mean, the dude’s just broken out of prison. But why does this seemingly no-nonsense woman throw caution to the wind to join Bowers in his life of crime? To me, it seems she just does because the script says so. Meanwhile, Hoffman and Byrnes do their very best to connect the dots.

Additionally, the device of a “fabulous torch singer” (that’s how she’s billed), who comments on the action in song through a wry smile, just doesn’t work. Not only are her tunes meandering and, well, tuneless, her appearance drags the action down. That said, Beth Sagal has a fine voice.

Still, this is a fun adaptation represented by a slick and sexy production, and you certainly won’t be bored (just wish we could skip over the torchifying).

“Thieves Like Us” plays through Oct. 30 at the Chopin Theatre, 1542 W. Division St. More info here >

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