Joel Jeske (left) and Ryan Kasprzak in This Way That Way.
photo: Parallel Exit

In Depression-era America, a bespectacled pickpocket meets a rube with a talent for soft-shoe. Fast friends, they soon embark on a "New York or Bust" odyssey of purse snatching and card sharping. Together they face down fearsome dowagers, cruel talent bookers, and the impossibility of whistling while one's mouth is full of saltines. There's thrills and terror aplenty: Will they make it to the Big Apple? Will they avoid that pesky railroad dick? Will they ever cease playing the banjo?

Yet, for all the promise of drama, director-deviser Mark Lonergan and performers Joel Jeske (the tall one) and Ryan Kasprzak (the not so tall one) have crafted an oddly static theatrical work. Though the notion of creating a silent film–style comedy for the stage is a genial one, and the actors prove as bouncy as they are meticulous, there's a tinge of saltine blandness about the affair. Jeske and Kasprzak impress with their dancing, cavorting, and card tricks—and Lonergan has twinned each gesture with a note from the accompanying score. But for all the jumping and juggling, the piece remains oddly inert. The characters and their relationship don't evolve. Each expertly executed vignette has little to do with the one that precedes it, and has been polished to a kind of facelessness. Who knew grifters could suffer for being too smooth?

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