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'Villainous Company': a Subtle Thriller at Theatre Row

Three women, one room and one masterful crime.

Photo by Hunter Canning

At around four o'clock on an autumn afternoon, Claire comes home from a day of shopping and notices that one of her packages is missing. A young store clerk, Tracy, shows up at her house not long after to return the item, and before long, we are enveloped into a world of grand larceny, crooked cops and international intrigue. This is the universe of Villainous Company.

Veteran playwright Victor L. Cahn wanted to do something different with this three-woman, one-room drama. "I wanted to write a play in the film noir tradition, but with a unique all-female cast," he says. "I also wanted these women to be entirely independent from men, and without any stereotypical 'feminine' priorities. And as much as these women circle around the issues of shopping and fashion as a cover story, in reality there is much more at play below the surface.

This play is a mystery story, but also a struggle for dominance in which you can never be certain who is going to come out on top. Alice Bahlke as Tracy is the young interloper, whose vibrant energy stands out in the world of the rich older women. Corey Tazmania's Claire is a more complex character, moving from unwilling host to indignant defendant and most often seems to be the one losing control--or maybe that's just what she wants you to think.

Julia Campanelli as Claire's friend Joanna, meanwhile, has an unwavering elegance and sense of superiority that proves to be the perfect challenge for Tracy. You will likely end up picking one of the trio to root for, because every second of this play is part of a game where no one can afford to lose. Villainous Company does get off to a rather slow start, gradually building the tension until you understand just how high the stakes are.

The intrigue, meanwhile, comes from the slow reveal of information as each character tests out how much the others really know about the crime that may or may not be occurring. The best moments in the play come in the second act, after Joanna's arrival, as the dialogue picks up speed and loyalties are tested. Whether it's Claire and Joanna making jokes and playacting at Tracy's expense or Joanna and Tracy's battle of wills played out through acts as small as offering drinks or exchanging chairs, this play proves that you don't need violence or even men to have a gripping crime drama.

Could Villainous Company have used more action and a faster pace? Certainly. But it is a fascinating piece of theater all the same, coming down to just the interplay between three women who are each far more than they appear.

Villainous Company plays at Theatre Row through January 31.

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