‘Villainous Company’ is a crime story, but not really a caper

From left, Corey Tazmania, Pheonix Vaughn and Melissa Macleod Herion co-star in "Villainous Company," which is at NJ Repertory Company in Long Branch through June 5.


From left, Corey Tazmania, Pheonix Vaughn and Melissa Macleod Herion co-star in “Villainous Company,” which is at NJ Repertory Company in Long Branch through June 5.

“Villainous Company: A Caper for Three Women” starts off innocuously, with a store employee visiting a patron’s apartment to deliver a package inadvertently left behind.

But you know, from the title, that something more sinister is going to happen. And it does.

I question the use of the word “caper,” though. To me, that connotes a certain lightness and playfulness — crime as a wild adventure. “Villainous Company” — a new play by Victor L. Cahn, currently playing at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch — isn’t primarily about the crime. It’s about characters trying to figure each other out, and outfox each other. It’s fun, in its own way, but its tone is primarily dark, and it doesn’t really fit my definition of a caper.

Claire (played by Pheonix Vaughn) lives in a tastefully decorated apartment whose walls are lined with cases full of expensive-looking objects. She returns home one day and realizes that one of her packages is missing. She calls the store, asking if they can find it. She’s sweet and polite at first, but quickly turns nasty. She’s really upset about this missing package, and of course you wonder why.

She’s relieved when Tracy (Melissa Macleod Herion), a store employee, shows up at the apartment to deliver the package personally. But Claire quickly becomes annoyed when Tracy (1) keeps asking questions she really has no right asking, and (2) won’t leave the apartment. Tracy obviously knows more than she admits to at first, but what is it?

Claire’s friend Joanna (Corey Tazmania) drops by as well, and the tension escalates. But who is the villain, and what is the caper? What’s in that package, and why did Claire almost freak out when she realized it was missing? The answers are revealed slowly, with several good twists along the way.

“Villainous Company” reminded me, a bit, of “Sleuth,” the 1970 play that was twice adapted into a movie. The characters circle each other, trying to draw each other out without revealing too much about themselves. I found it quite entertaining, though not a total success: While I enjoyed trying to figure everything out, several key things pertaining to both the crime and the way the characters were acting seemed quite unrealistic. For instance: If what was in that package was so valuable to Claire, is it plausible that she would make it all the way home before realizing she left it behind?

I can’t say more without spoiling surprises, but would be remiss not to mention this. At the end of a play like this, you want to be able to say to yourself, “Now I understand it all,” not, “Gee, some of that really didn’t make sense.”

That said, director SuzAnna Barabas keeps the action moving crisply, set designer Jessica Parks makes Claire’s apartment as tasteful — and as soulless — as Claire herself, and when the actresses are called on to eye each other with subtle suspicion or make their seemingly innocuous characters turn, quickly, into sharks, they do so convincingly.

There’s plenty here to enjoy. Just don’t think about it too deeply.

“Villainous Company: A Caper for Three Women” is at NJ Rep through June 5; visit njrep.org.

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