nytheatre.com review by Lois Spangler
October 4, 2007
Mercy Thieves is a dark comedy following two hit men over the course of one night as they cross Australia to find the man they've been charged to "have a word with." Mike is talkative and often philosophical; DJ is content to listen, most of the time. But as the two converse during their trek, leaving a trail of corpses along the way, a much more complicated story arises, one of familial ties, loyalty, and betrayal.
Described in some places as "Pulp Fiction in the Outback," the tagline sells the play short. It's far more focused than a Tarantino flick, far less spastic, and has a much more meaningful ending. It's a tale that's Shakespearean in scope, because author Mark Kilmurry draws deep inspiration from Hamlet. The roles in Mercy Thieves aren't directly analogous, but the themes definitely are, and what results is a deeply satisfying tale that gives plenty of opportunities to laugh before it lays you low with its conclusion.
Mercy Thieves opens strongly—the actors are onstage already as the audience arrives, a body half-hidden behind a bar. As the action begins, the two hit men are in the very middle of a shakedown. And that energy doesn't abate as the show progresses, which I felt was a great feat. It may quiet down, it may rev up, but its intensity remains a slow, steadfast increase, punctuated by those last few moments before the intermission.
The play also toys around with time in a way that, mishandled, would be disastrous, but director Craig Baldwin executes very well in this production. One scene is played from more than one perspective; several scenes behave as flashbacks, or as played-out renditions of DJ explaining events to Mike. There's also quite a bit of violence in the show, including a significant, but not excessive, amount of blood. I heard a couple of gasps from the audience, but in my opinion, its appearances are appropriate and relevant, as is the violence in general throughout the show.
What's truly magical here, though, is the chemistry among the characters in the play—in particular between the two hit men, DJ and Mike, played by Nick Stevenson and Jeremy Waters, respectively. These men make a living through thuggery and murder, but the friendship and loyalty they share is a wonder to watch, muted but very present. Overall, there's no overwrought feeling to interactions, no self-indulgent wallowing in meaningfulness, no self-consciousness or aggrandizing for the sake of a laugh or a moment of intense drama; everything has a lightness, a dry humor to it, that's extraordinarily refreshing and revelatory when it comes to the state of American theatre today.
Additionally, Cory Pattack's ingenuity with lighting—one character almost always appears with her own lamp, and strobe effects make action scenes visceral, tight, and efficient—make the show very visually engaging. One of my favorite small details is the clever use of dashboard lighting during the driving scenes.
Mercy Thieves is a tightly told story that knows how and when to take its time. Verdict? Very much worth seeing. Off you go, now.