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How polite do you have to be to the person interrogating you?
In the first half of Victor Cahn’s slickly-paced new Villainous Company, two characters exchange so many pleasantries – about the cost of this or that knick-knack, career aspirations, the benefits of early retirement – that it’s easy to forget that something more sinister is going on. The premise – a successful, austerely elegant woman in her mid-thirties accidentally leaves one of her packages with the cashier at a housewares store – starts out gleefully banal, then slowly, richly, morphs into something deeper: the cashier turns up at the woman’s house, starts complimenting her taste in home décor, wonders how a person can afford such treasures, then – ever so politely – makes it clear she has no intention of leaving.
For its first forty-five minutes, Villainous Company is a wildly successful parlor thriller, as bourgeois notions of hospitality, of politeness, of how one should behave to a stranger who smiles so sweetly while sitting so firmly on one’s sofa. And the drama’s central pair are well matched. As Claire, mistress of the house, Corey Tazmania exudes a combination of WASPy hauteur and frayed nerves; despite her perfunctorily generous hospitality to this intrusive stranger – water, coffee, whiskey? – this is a woman with a secret she intends on keeping. As the cashier, Tracy, Alice Bahlke counters Tazmania’s reserve with bouncing youthful dynamism: she may not be able to afford all those fine knickknacks on Claire’s shelves, but she – Tazmania makes clear – certainly intends to, one day. One way or another. The pair play off each other magnificently, as issues of age, class, and other fountainheads of resentment bubble ever so quietly under the surface.
All these elements cohere to create a setup that’s quietly, brilliantly unsettling: touching on so many fears (and neuroses) of what it means to be successful, to have a successful life, to achieve – as Tracy puts it – the “American dream.”
It is perhaps inevitable that no pay-off could ever live up to the promise of its premise. As the characters of Villainous Company start finally admitting their secrets (after a completely unnecessary interval at the forty-minute mark, which has the unfortunate effect of ameliorating much of the tension), Villainous Company takes on the character of a more mainstream crime drama: concrete details about stolen art, smuggling, and a mysterious syndicate take over from the more nebulous atmosphere of dream. The acting is as strong as ever, the dialogue as briskly minimalistic as ever, but the dynamic that emerges between Tracy and Claire becomes all too straightforward: less Genet’s The Maids and more Law & Order.
This is a shame, in part because late-arrival Julia Campanelli as Joanna – Claire’s society friend (or is that criminal colleague?) – is so effective in conveying absolute power over her suburban fiefdom. With her Chanel-style skirt-suits and her subtly-highlighted hair, she seems to be to Claire what Claire is to Tracy: a model of an even higher form of social attainment. It’s a dynamic ripe for exploration. But Campanelli comes too late: and too much of Villanous Company’s second half is given over to too much explicit resolution. By the play’s end, everything seems like one of Claire’s many packages: neatly wrapped up.
Still, Villainous Company is a well-executed thriller: and the play’s tension lasts through to Joanna and Claire’s final exchange. But that sense of dread was so much more exciting when we didn’t know what to be afraid of.
Tara Isabella Burton
Tara Isabella Burton's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Arc, The Dr TJ Eckleburg Review, Guernica, and more. In 2012 she received the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing. She is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency of New York; her first novel is currently on submission.