Appearances are deceiving in Victor L. Cahn's tale of suburban intrigue.
During a particularly tense moment in Victor L. Cahn's Villainous Company (now making its world premiere at Theatre Row), one woman asks another for identification. She coolly responds, "Would you know if it's real?" No one is who they seem to be in this suspenseful crime drama, which will have you on the edge of your seat, even as you feel uneasy about its implications. Clever in its contrivance and unsuspectingly astute, Villainous Company is an incredibly satisfying two hours of theater.
It's a rainy autumn afternoon and Claire (Corey Tazmania) has just returned home from shopping. She realizes that she left a package at the store, and as she's calling back to inquire about it, the doorbell rings. It's Tracy (Alice Bahlke), the cashier. She's followed Claire home with her lost package. Taken aback by this uncommon level of service, Claire beams, "Aren't you thoughtful!" She begins to suspect Tracy is more than just an extraordinarily helpful clerk, however, when she invites herself in and starts to ask a lot of questions about Claire's acquaintances and shopping habits.
"We're also very interested in Joanna Clay," Tracy says, slipping into first-person plural after Claire correctly guesses that she's an agent of a private security firm. Ostensibly a friend (but maybe a business associate) of Claire (who is inexplicably retired at a very young age), art dealer Joanna (Julia Campanelli) arrives just before the second act, further complicating this awkward confrontation. No one would ever suspect malfeasance from this pair of ladies who lunch — which is why they might just be the ideal criminals.
As Claire, Tazmania plays the consummate WASP. Hands extended daintily for balance, she exhibits an aggressive politeness (always conveyed through pristine Mid-Atlantic English) as a way to mask her true intentions. By contrast, Bahlke's Tracy is less formal, a hint of zany humor in every line. Their back-and-forth is often funny and unendingly intriguing. It feels like an Alfred Hitchcock thriller starring Joan Crawford and Sarah Silverman.
Employing cut-out walls and strategically placed tchotchkes, Jennifer Varbalow's austere set efficiently suggests Claire's tastefully decorated home. Costume designer Brooke Cohen outfits Claire in white slacks (which appear polka-dot from afar and look like an eye chart up close) and a pink zip-up blouse. This simultaneously prim and ostentatious look (especially for a rainy day) perfectly complements Tazmania's already stellar performance. Joanna is even more grandiose, sporting Republican-wife realness. With an imposing performance by Campanelli, it's clear that Joanna knows how to make an impression. Yet as her gilded façade begins to crack, a harsher edge starts to emerge. She's like Nancy Reagan in an episode of Breaking Bad.
Cahn sets his tale of illicit dealings at an unsuspecting suburban home against the backdrop of the perfectly legal yet questionably constitutional methods of privatized law enforcement and surveillance that pervade modern America. Director Eric Parness employs a light touch that allows audiences to make these connections on their own. He's more interested in presenting a good-old-fashioned nail-biter, which he does with magnificent grace.
True, large parts of Villainous Company strain credulity. For instance, why would Claire offer Tracy another drink when she starts getting snoopy, rather than simply asking her to leave? After all, it's not like Tracy has a warrant. Then again, why do any of us submit to the extra-legal searches and questions of police (for-hire and otherwise) when we aren't constitutionally obligated? Cahn asks these questions, but challenges you to answer them, all in an entertaining and infinitely watchable package.