HotHouse Theatre's newest production, a slick and witty presentation of Criminal Hearts, a play by Jane Martin (whoever s/he is), opened last week at HotHouse's space in the 1600 block of Washington Avenue. It is a pretty good play to begin with, part Christopher Durang and part sitcom, and a strong cast, directed by the wise and wonderful Carolyne Hood and headed by Penney Kols in her first big knockabout comic role, really brings it to hilarious life.
Criminal Hearts tells us of Ata (Kols), currently sleeping in an apartment bare of anything except her expensive wardrobe because her really awful husband, Wib (Chopper Leifheit), has stripped it of everything in retaliation for Ata's single act of infidelity. That her lone slip was retaliation for his manifold, ongoing philandering is irrelevant. Imagine her dismay when she awakes one night to find that a robber, Bo (Karin Hansen), has entered her home and that Bo's sinister companion, Robbie (Tom Simmons), is waiting in the street with a truck to carry off the plunder. The rapport that develops among Ata, Bo and Robbie and the scheme that the three develop to avenge Ata's betrayal and enrich the trio are the guts of Martin's play, and hugely entertaining guts they are.
Hood makes her first public appearance as a director in many years with Criminal Hearts. Those who remember her work for Orthwein Theatre and the St. Louis Shakespeare Company will rejoice to see she hasn't lost her touch; those seeing her work for the first time are in for a treat. Her most interesting directorial decision with Criminal Hearts is to have Kols play Ata in an over-the-top cartoon style while Hansen plays Bo in a far more realistic manner. You might think this oil-and-water mix would end up thin and greasy comedy, but the result is a disconcerting, thoroughly winning farce, and both characters end up seeming much more credible than they would had Hood used only one style for both. Leifheit's Wib is a disgusting, narcissistic bully, way too lifelike for comfort. Simmons' Robbie, on the other hand, is a Damon Runyon crook, about as dangerous as a stuffed tiger.
Thomas W. Quintas' set is better than workmanlike, as is Todd Schaefer's lighting design. Jeffrey Scott Yapp's costumes are amusing in themselves but not to the extent that they draw attention from the characters wearing them.
Criminal Hearts continues through April 1.