The budget-friendly solo performance has become such a ubiquitous staple of contemporary theater that it's spawned three distinct sub-genres -- the more familiar being the portrait of a historical celebrity and the author-performer's autobiographical journey of self-discovery. Rarer, but offering more of the rewards of traditional drama, is the kind of work faultlessly epitomized in Conor McPherson's "The Good Thief" at the Court Theatre.
No one invests the monologue form with the narrative artistry and momentum of a fully scripted play better than McPherson, the Irish playwright primarily known in this country for "The Weir," "St. Nicholas" and "This Lime Tree Bower." Here, in little more than an hour, actor Brian d'Arcy James immerses his audience with cinematic immediacy in the gritty underworld and nightmare odyssey of McPherson's nameless narrator, a two-bit thug who gets in over his head when a bungled intimidation job puts him at odds with his sociopathic racketeer employers.
After a tense episode of frenzied impulse reactions to fast-moving events spiraling out of control (the kind of scene that is one of McPherson's fortes), the thief takes it on the lam with his intended victim's wife and child in tow, closely followed by killers intent on leaving no witnesses.
On one level, "The Good Thief" is a gripping suspense yarn, chronicling the narrator's desperate efforts to dodge both the police and his criminal pursuers. At the same time, it's a deeply involving psychological drama about his tentative moral awakening, as he becomes unexpectedly attached to his inadvertent traveling companions.
Impressively, the piece never resorts to facile Hollywood cliches -- the connection between the thief and the victim's wife remains partial and steeped in distrust on both sides. McPherson's writerly gift for enlisting sympathy through deflection and suggestive details -- the wife's surprising lack of concern for her husband's condition, an infant's tight grip on the narrator's finger that melts through his defenses -- grounds the story in believable emotional complexity. Most convincing of all is the total confusion with which the antihero reacts to his first experience of ethical principles.
Carl Forsman's assured staging employs sparse but inventive lighting effects to punch pivotal moments without distracting from James' riveting performance, which strikes not a single false note.
'The Good Thief'
Where: Court Theatre, 722 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood
When: Thursday-Friday, Sunday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 8 and 9:45 p.m.
Ends: Feb. 23
Contact: (323) 655-TKTS
Running time: 1 hour, 5 minutes