“Phoenix Payne” is about a jewel thief named Doris Payne. That may already be a spoiler. In the first scene, Doris, played by Monette McLin, browses at a jewelry store and asks to see various rings. She tries them on, chatting about the weather, her children’s recent vacation, their grades, her late-husband, and – oops, she dropped a jewel on the ground. Oops. She leaves the store with a jewel on her finger. When the second scene confirms that our protagonist is a sticky-fingered palm artist, the revelation drops like an I-did-not-see-that-coming lightning bolt. We then meet a detective who has been chasing Doris for years. He calls her a woman God better not leave unattended at the pearly gates unless he wants the pearls stolen. He says that if you have especially sparkly poop, you need not worry about wiping because Doris will do it for you. The raunchy slapstick humor is written with the precision of Pentagon computer code. In the next scene, a preacher with a microphone claims “Miss Doris” is innocent. According to him, white men steal jewels and frame Doris, a woman of color. Then, at a raffle to raise money for Doris’s retirement fund, third prize is a free insurance consultation. Second prize is a $15 gift card to a flea market. First prize is something you’ll have to find out yourself. I’ve explained enough. I loved the writing, madcap acting, physical comedy (getting tossed out of a train, fake flatulence, and sleight-of-hand) and the soundtrack (“Diamonds Are Forever”). This show is funny in an absurd, exaggerated, cue-the-Inspector-Gadget-music sort of way. See it for an evening of character acting, petty theft, grand larceny, and breath-stealing jokes. Halfway through, the jokes remain funny and the acting good, but the story picks up its feet, holds them to its knees, and stops moving forward. It goes from every-line-a-winner to pumping its brakes and dragging its exposition. Doris tells us about the time she escaped arrest. A newscaster named Becky Talkstoomuch explains that Doris has stolen from over 10 countries. The FBI refuses to release Doris’s records. Hmmm. Where is this going? Nowhere, it seemed. Instead of plot, character after character shared anecdotes about Doris. I enjoyed the zingers, but 35 minutes into the production, I was stuffed with ah-has and ready to be served a substantive, nutrient-rich meal of story. Doris justifies herself by explaining, ”Jewelers offer me the jewelry based on how I carry myself. I walk in and they say, ‘Would you like to have a look at this diamond watch?’ I don’t technically ask for it. It’s their fault that it goes missing.” The newscaster ponders, “Hasn’t Doris been taught not to take what does not belong to her? Is she a kleptomaniac, unable to not steal or is she making conscious choices?” Instead of moralizing and speculation, I wished Doris would be sent on one final heist. I wanted to see her greatest adventure or her stint in prison, which was merely alluded to. As a fan, I am eager to see where Doris ends up. “Phoenix Payne” Performed by Monette McLin Oct. 16 at 7:30pm Photo: courtesy of the production United Solo 2018 Theatre Row 410 West 42nd Street New York City
AUSTIN KAISER is a writer with an expertise in art and the creative process. His writing is about improving your imagination and exercising your empathy muscle. Kaiser is currently writing a book called, “100 Questions Every Artist Should Have The Answers To.” His other book, “How To Go Viral & Put Wings On Ideas: A Book For Content Creators & Young Artists,” explains how ideas travel and which ideas travel best. More at www.medium.com/@KaiserMane.