The characters in Ron Klier's new play "Gus's Fashions & Shoes," premiering at Vs. Theatre, are so colorful, argumentative and profane that they suggest the existence, and possibly the overuse, of some sort of David Mamet character generator app.
The story is set in 1990 in the cluttered stockroom of an "urban wear" store in St. Louis, rendered in gorgeously grungy detail by production designer Danny Cistone.
The eponymous, irascible Gus (Robert Maffia) sells Converse sneakers and Chicago Cubs paraphernalia coveted by gangsters. Gus has a complex relationship with his employee, Jimmy the Midget (Pancho Moler), a feckless, combustible alcoholic, whom Gus harangues over a screechy PA system and regularly fires but, on some level, loves like a son.
Gus' actual son, Matty (Sam Boeck), thirtyish, also works at the store but is lost in a world of pulsing hip-hop and in thrall to his friend De'Ron (Amir Abdullah), a charismatic rapper (whose Act 2 performance alone is worth the ticket).
Gritty, inner city milieu; reckless, disadvantaged characters puffed-up with overblown ambitions and illusory street smarts: I had it pegged as "American Buffalo" in a shoe store, with rap. (Before the play and during intermission the theater throbs with ear-splintering rap selections by Klier.)
But it turns out there really is a store called Gus's Fashions & Shoes in St. Louis, owned by a real Gus, who in the 1990s employed an actual Jimmy the Midget. Truth, at least in this case, is more Mametian than Mamet.
Klier, who also directs, persuasively re-creates this world onstage with help from his designers: Gelareh Khalioun's costumes and Ned Mochel's "violence design" are particularly effective. Klier clearly relishes introducing us to these oddballs, compellingly portrayed by his strong cast, but he has a deeper purpose in transporting us to this time and place. "Gus's" is the second in Klier's planned trilogy of St. Louis plays. Like the first, "Cops and Friends of Cops," which premiered at Vs. in 2013, it explores the racial tensions in this diverse community.
A neighborhood vice cop, Joe (Jeffrey Johnson), stops by Gus's. He and Gus may be old friends, but Joe brims with menace. When he asks Gus — a former barber, who still keeps a station in the store — for a hot shave, you could cut the tension with a straight razor, and blood seems inevitable.
It turns out that Joe has heard some rumors about what De'Ron has been up to; there's a possibility that Matty was involved. As a favor to his old buddy Gus, Joe gets De'Ron alone in the room and interrogates him using a one-man good cop/bad cop routine that drips with self-righteousness and racist condescension.
Johnson is wonderfully despicable in the role, and De'Ron's restraint feels heroic, but the interaction repeats itself and drags on, dampening rather than increasing the tension.
The ensuing revelations ought to be explosive, but they somehow misfire, leaving the play uncertain of when it ought to end. Klier's faith to reality is at once the strength and weakness of his work here. The characters are rich, but the plot feels tacked on rather than organic, and despite all the talking, the emotional stakes remain elusive.