‘How to Steal a Picasso’ is Strong on Laughs, If Not Story

How to Steal a Picasso keeps to the Unicorn Theatre’s mission to produce plays that are relevant to contemporary issues. It’s a farce that tries to make deeper commentary. And it kind of works.
The play is set at a family home in Detroit, where estranged son Johnny has returned home. Johnny and his sister, Casey, get along well, but his past as a forger of paintings has offended his father, Otto, deeply, because he himself struggles very hard to be a painter. Johnny has arrived home in time to see his father accept an art award, which Otto takes as proof that he’s not a failure.
While the family tries to deal with Otto’s award, Johnny’s return, and the impending arrival of John Lennon’s son Sean, it seems that a Picasso has disappeared from the museum where Otto and Casey work. Otto and Casey are the suspected thieves, and a museum official tries to get them to reveal the location of the painting.
The cast of the play is strong. Tommy Gorrebeeck is very charismatic as Johnny, the son who is trying to prove he’s “not a fuck-up.” Katie Kalahurka is Casey, and she’s a good stage partner with Gorrebeeck. They have a sibling chemistry that makes them fun to watch together. Walter Coppage is excellent as well, playing Otto as a man who is both proud of his success and still afraid that he’s inadequate. Cathy Barnett is very funny as the mother, Belle, a mix of Edith Bunker and Edith Beale.
The cast here is actually stronger than the script. Playwright William Missouri Downs has written an ambitious script, but it’s too ambitious. He tries to take on too many issues, especially given the show’s short running time (about 90 minutes with an intermission). In order to get all of his points in, Downs sacrifices some vital character development, a consistent perspective, and a certain sense of reality. The entire character of Mr. Walker, who is investigating the family, is strange and doesn’t make much sense.
In perhaps the biggest irony, the play falls victim to something that it criticizes others for doing. One point that the play makes is that in today’s world, art must be watered down and easy to consume. Although Downs has grand ideas for his play, he ends up making it easy to consume and relying on traditional comedy to get some laughs, instead of exploring his issues in a more meaningful manner.
How to Steal a Picasso is a funny show with some great performances. But it bites off more than it can chew, and it loses most of its chances to make a strong artistic statement – which is what the play is trying to promote.
How to Steal a Picasso is playing an extended run at the Unicorn Theatre through Feb. 21. For tickets, go to www.unicorntheatre.org.

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