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'Criminal Hearts' Weighed Down by Implausible Plot

Criminal Hearts directed by Christopher Scully produced by Elisa Leone at the Leverett House Old Library March 15

By Mary-beth A. Muchmore

"Criminal Hearts," a play by Jane Martin, begins and ends with a blackened stage. The play never moves along either. The characters begin in an absurd and implausible situation which never resolves satisfactorily.

The entire premise of the play is off-base. Ata (Melissa Hambly) is a once-wealthy woman whose only jobs have been to volunteer in and organize charitable events. She has become completely neurotic since her husband left her before the play begins: she feels empathy towards people in most situations, has headaches, and, when scared, "freezes to" things (most notably in the play, a gun, which she grasps throughout much of the action). Ata meets Bo (Jennifer Madden), the other main character of the play, when Bo attempts to rob her apartment.

During the failed robbery, the two bond. Pathetic Ata appeals to street-hardened Bo: "I'm a woman; I have breasts too." After Ata gets control of the gun, Bo spins a hard luck story about the children whom she has to feed, and Ata lets her go.

The next scene opens with Bo breaking into Ata's apartment (again), this time just to say hello. She is passing through after robbing another apartment in Ata's building. The two concoct a plan to rob Ata's estranged husband. They conduct the robbery with the help of Robbie (Kevin LaVelle), one of Bo's partners in crime. Soon after, Ata becomes "sexually liberated" and decides to forsake her former life for a life of crime.

Stereotypes riddle the play. That a neurotic, upper-class woman should bond with a crass, foul-mouthed robber (even one who was robbing her apartment at the time) is absurd. The play takes the absurdity to an even further extent with the implausible resolution.

Everything works out too nicely. Ata just decides, in a fit of neurotic passion, that she wants to defy her husband in some way (i.e., by becoming a criminal), then regains her self-confidence by going off with a woman she barely knows. In a bizarre Flannery O'Connor reference, Bo attempts to convince Ata by telling her, "A good shimmy is hard to find." Ata thinks she's found a life that will finally make her happy.

At times, "Criminal Hearts" seeks to answer big metaphorical questions that go way beyond its scope or capabilities. Ata wonders aloud whether the robbery is really occurring and if she or Bo really exist. There's also the conflict between trust, a value important to Ata, and respect, which Bo chooses. Some subtleties in this generally blatant, in-your-face play do exist, but they aren't satisfying or logical. Only the obvious comes across through the acting.

The best acting is done by Hambly, who tries to liven up her flat character. Madden is appropriately unapproachable and successfully conveys a ring of untruth in her voice. Unfortunately, the performances are weakened by the ludicrous subject matter. The minor characters have even less dimension. Since even the relationship between Bo and Ata isn't well-developed, the smaller parts are still less memorable.

Technically, the lighting was masterful. The play begins in the dark during the robbery; as the viewer's eyes adjust, the scene becomes clearer and the viewer can make out the furtive burglar by faint light from a window. While stuck in pitch black, the viewer empathizes with Ata and her fear: however, this is the only time in the play one feels any empathy for any of the characters. However, the dramatic silences were violated by the annoying and incessant buzzing hum of the lights.

In the end, the star of the show is neither Ata nor Bo, nor the lighting, but rather Tommy's House of Pizza. Every scene takes place in Ata's slovenly apartment, around which Tommy's pizza boxes are scattered. At each scene change, the boxes are artfully moved around and the piles added to. The back of the program even offers a coupon for a free cannoli from Tommy's. "Sesame Seed Edge" Pizza and Dr. Pepper (Ata's meal of choice) are a far more appealing option than this play.

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