All Kinds of Shifty Villains
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 12, 2008
Robert Attenweiler's new play All Kinds of Shifty Villains is billed as "a carnival noir," which does not feel like the precisely right designation for it. The "noir" part is certainly accurate: the hero of the piece, Max Quarterhorse, is a hard-drinking, womanizing private eye who is enlisted by a beautiful but enigmatic dame to help her out of some seriously dangerous trouble a la The Maltese Falcon. Max fits the existential mode of the genre to a "t," and Attenweiler has cannily given him a chemical issue as well, which is that he's just quit smoking, and the nicotine withdrawal is starting to tell on him: are the strange occurrences that he keeps seeing really happening, or is he hallucinating?
The "carnival" part of Shifty Villains is problematic, though. One of the eponymous bad guys that Max is pursuing—or is it the other way around?—is a tall silent fellow with a bright red ball nose and lots of crazy tricks up his sleeve. He is simply called The Clown, and that's exactly what he is. He's a great conceit as surreal/unreal nemesis to our mentally unreliable hero. But surely clowns perform in the circus, not in the carnival; and although there's some nifty acrobatic choreography executed by a few of the other off-kilter characters occupying Attenweiler's busy scenario, neither circus nor carnival is ultimately much evoked in the proceedings.
Trouble is, we keep wishing that one or the other would be. The dense mystery-story plot is fun but it's clearly been crafted to serve a physical production filled with wall-to-wall surprises. But director Rachel Klein fails to provide much in the way of exciting action on stage. So All Kinds of Shifty Villains, despite a script that's fast and often very funny (Attenweiler's way with dialogue remains uniquely his own, and a treat for the ear), falls disappointingly flat.
Leading players Joe Stipek (Max) and Christopher Loar (The Clown) do generally good work, with Stipek anchoring the piece nicely. But the supporting cast, portraying a variety of eccentric figures, are stuck between the worlds of noir and carnival/circus, and do not always execute what they've been given to do with suitable style or panache. I suspect that a firmer adherence to the notion of carnival (or, probably better, to circus—with a requisite shift in the subtitle) might have provided the focus this ambitious piece needs to really succeed.