If you’re a Millennial or younger, Broken Nose Theatre’s PLAINCLOTHES, now tucked into one of Den Theatre’s studio spaces, has a familiar vibe. If you’re beyond Millennial age, this new play by Spenser Davis is a lively education. PLAINCLOTHES shows how a generation raised on social media functions in a workplace that pre-dates the internet -- specifically, a Chicago department store’s “loss prevention” office.
Evan Frank’s set is so authentically drab, you can all but smell its mustiness. Budget-starved and downright grubby, this is where the multi-racial plainclothes guards of Brady’s Department Store (fictional successor to Marshall Field’s and Macy’s) retreat when they’re not working the sales floor with earpieces and walkie-talkies.
BROKEN NOSE THEATRE production digs into details
Amid the office’s generic furnishings, a bench with metal handles serves as a kind of handcuff hitching post. Serial shoplifter Jomal (Ben F. Locke), an African American with a drag queen persona, offends more with his body odor than whatever he slipped into his pocket. When a white guy gets cuffed to the bench, the young staffers recognize him as a YouTube sensation with over a million followers. To attract so many clicks, all he does is videotape himself opening Amazon packages. He can’t explain why he stole something from Brady’s any more than he can explain why he opens packages.
For those who give little thought to loss prevention, PLAINCLOTHES digs into the details. Similar to a car dealership, the office has a board that records the team’s actual arrests vs goals. A “bad stop” means apprehending someone who turns out to be innocent. “AFA” indicates an Asian Female Adult. To meet the monthly quota, black kids are easy prey.
Retail and race intersect in PLAINCLOTHES
The real catch, it turns out, are white people so that management has the stats to prove they scrutinize whites as closely as shoppers of color. After a violent encounter between a homeless black man and three security guards, the team is put on “corporate probation.” A camera is installed in the office, purportedly to protect the staff from further assaults, but everyone knows that management is spying on them. How race permeates the workplace becomes PLAINCLOTHES’ most potent message. The mantra “we get fired, white men get transferred” plays out in ways that are unexpected but plausible.
PLAINCLOTHES’ humor never falters
The humor in Davis’ sharp script never falters. According to the local cop (Kim Boler), the American Girl store is “where dreams put on dresses and die.” Sales associate Mary (RjW Mays) took one bite of Brady’s delicious quiche “and saw the afterlife.” Mixed-race Llermo (Alejandro Tey) describes Michael Bublé as “zero-calorie Sinatra” and Bublé’s holiday loop as “worse than waterboarding.”
There’s a lot beneath the zingers when it comes to the intersection of race and retail. Reporting to white middle-age Jim (Rob Frankel), these Millennials function within the department store’s power structure. Asian-American “T” (Stephanie Shum) knows what really happened during the altercation with the homeless black man. What she reveals and when – and how her co-workers respond -- create the play’s central moral dilemma.
For this viewer, PLAINCLOTHES takes too long to knuckle down and deal with the crisis. Because its divisive consequences are so key to the play’s consideration of race, it was disappointing to be pulled away by less critical story elements. But thanks to Broken Nose Theatre’s superb ensemble work and the script’s inherent richness, the production is a provocative offering for Millennials and other generations in search of serious theater to start the holiday season.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Kim Boler, Elise Marie Davis, Rob Frankel, Teresa Kuruvilla, Ben F. Locke, RjW Mays, Carmen Molina, Stephanie Shum, Adam Soule, Alejandro Tey, David Weiss
Spenser Davis – playwright; Kanomé Jones & Spenser Davis – co-directors; Evan Frank – set designer; Rachel Sypniewski – costume designer; Michael Joseph – lighting designer; Isaac Mandel – sound designer; Devon Green – props designer; David Weiss – dramaturg; Becca Holloway – assistant director; Therese Ritchie – technical director; Daryl Ritchie – master electrician; Rose Hamill – stage director
Now through December 15
Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays at 7:30 PM
Sundays at 3 PM
The Den Theatre
1331 N. Milwaukee Ave.
About the Autho
Susan Lieberman is a Jeff-winning playwright, journalist, teacher and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her radio drama In the Shadows recently aired on BBC Radio 4.