Scena Theatre's production of "The Good Thief" proves a maxim sometimes given short shrift by contemporary theaters -- nothing trumps a good story well told.
And Conor McPherson's "Good Thief" is not just a good story. It is a great story, as exciting and suspenseful as the best Hollywood thriller. But any story so told, in the monologue form that is McPherson's forte, necessarily depends on the skill of the teller. In this respect, Scena scores in casting Eric Lucas as an Irish shakedown artist reflecting on the botched assignment that transformed his life.
An actor and playwright who, like McPherson, specializes in Irish themes, Lucas is blessed with a natural storyteller's timing and an affinity for the material. Here, Lucas inhabits the skin of a thoroughly unlucky Dublin thug with a truncated capacity for introspection. Alone in a London pub, he works through a bottle of whiskey and pack of cigarettes as he calmly recounts the events that awoke in him the unfamiliar stirring of a conscience. Through this dim persona, Lucas delivers McPherson's one-hour monologue so effectively that you quickly forget the production consists, for the most part, of one man sitting in a chair.
And while director Robert McNamara attempts to put a shape on the monologue by taking Lucas out of that chair for occasional, unmotivated strolls around the stage, he could just as easily have let the actor sit. "The Good Thief" works best when Lucas is most still, for the story itself explodes with action.
Dispatched by an underworld boss to shake protection money out of a resistant businessman, the thief thinks he's on a routine assignment. But it quickly goes sour, and fearing a setup, he flees for his life, taking along the principal witnesses -- the businessman's wife and child. From there, almost nothing happens the way he -- or the audience -- expects.
McPherson's tale is so vivid, you can easily imagine it as a film. It's got all the ingredients -- the violence and sexual undercurrents that Hollywood favors and an innocent child thrown in to crank up the tension. But McPherson is too skilled a writer to resort to the usual tricks. As he drops in these elements, he turns them around in a disturbing fashion.
Given the cinematic quality of the material, it's particularly interesting that McPherson chose to tell the story this way. Film, for all its wonders, demands the audience's passivity. It releases the viewer from responsibility. The storyteller, in contrast, relies on the listener to conjure the images that the words evoke. As it falls to us to create the bloody shootout, the bold escape and the strange, disquieting comfort of the hideaway, we find ourselves no longer at a safe distance. The result is a wholly absorbing and unnerving ride.
The Good Thief, by Conor McPherson. Directed by Robert McNamara. Set, Jessica Wade; lighting, Lynn Joslin; sound, David Crandall. Produced by Scena Theatre. Approximately one hour with no intermission. Through April 6 at the Warehouse Theatre, 1021 Seventh St. NW. Call 703-684-7990.