What’s the best way for a playwright to deal with a sensitive social issue—to engage while remaining engaging, to preach without being preachy? It’s a tricky line to walk, and the way to failure is paved with agitprop, dinner-party philosophizing and well-meaning dramatic inertia. In his thrilling new play, Plainclothes, set in the cramped loss-prevention office of a Macy’s-esque Miracle Mile department store, playwright Spenser Davis makes the case for a kind of a washroom-sink realism. Energetic, funny and packed with emotion, the play features millennial characters who self-consciously wrestle with institutional racism in ways that feel genuine.
Plainclothes follows anti-theft team members T (the ever-pugnacious Stephanie Shum), Llermo (Alejandro Tey) and Karina (Carmen Molina) as they navigate the fallout from a white, female employee (Elise Marie Davis) getting stabbed by an African-American shoplifter. The remaining team members, who are nonwhite, get placed on probation and instructed to catch fewer black kids—while still meeting their quotas, of course. (Playing their middle-aged manager, Rob Frankel gives a master class in Midwestern paternalism.) Within the pressure cooker of the holiday shopping season, tensions rise and secrets boil up.
Co-directed by Davis and Kanomé Jones, the play was developed in concert with the cast—a process inspired by the one that writer Michael Perlman used for At The Table, which Davis directed for Broken Nose Theatre last year. The dialogue in Plainclothes achieves a similarly naturalistic, overlapping flow, but with far greater energy and volume. (It’s the difference between a babbling brook and burst water main.) Davis doesn’t quite pull off some of the sleight of hand moves his story requires—the first scene after intermission contains a plot twist so severe it feels more like a reboot—but Plainclothes’ rococo mixture of vivacity and cynicism carries it out of trouble and onward towards its raucous conclusion: one where cowardice becomes indistinguishable from malice.
Broken Nose Theatre. By Spenser Davis. Directed by Spenser Davis and Kanomé Jones. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2 hrs 10mins. One intermission.