Plays don’t get much more testosterone-fueled than Gus’s Fashions & Shoes, the grittily dramatic, darkly comedic latest from writer-director Ron Klier, whose Cops And Friends Of Cops kept Vs. Theatre audiences glued to the edge of their seats two years back.

Klier’s two-acter takes its time in getting round to the nitty-gritty of its suspenseful second half, and both acts together could benefit from twenty minutes or so worth of cuts, the better to give Gus’s Fashions & Shoes the post-World-Premiere life it so richly deserves.

Still, even overlong, this is one richly rewarding evening of theater, particularly as brought to life by five of the finest actors (and performances) you could ever hope to see on a professional American stage, let alone in the intimacy of a 39-seat house like Vs.’s.

1 Set in 1990 in the shoebox-filled backroom of a real-life (though now shuttered) St. Louis, MO footwear emporium, Gus’s Fashions & Shoes introduces us to its owner (Robert Maffia as Klier’s presumably fictionalized take on local legend Gus Torregrossa) and Gus’s longtime employee/best friend/bane of his existence James D. Barton, aka Jimmy The Midget (Pancho Moler), quite the honest-to-goodness St. Louis legend himself.

6 Working alongside Jimmy in the back room is Gus’s lackadaisical 30-year-old son Matty (Sam Boeck), though to call what Matty does “work” is stretching a point, and then some. More likely listening to hiphop on his Sony Walkman than doing anything worth a paycheck, Matty spends most of his free time hanging with his five-year-younger homey, African-American wannabe rap star De’Ron (Amir Abdullah), whose self-produced debut cassette Matty keeps trying unsuccessfully to convince his Pops to display for sale at Gus’s.

5 Completing the cast of characters is local cop Joe (Jeffrey Johnson), a Gus’s Fashions & Shoes regular whose latest visit might be more than just a friendly stop-by despite the backroom shave he claims to have come by for … and gets.

Act One gives us time to get to know Gus and his entourage, and though less time might ultimately prove “more,” with actors the caliber of those on the Vs. stage bringing Klier’s characters to rich, vibrant life, it remains time worth spent.

Still, it’s not till Jimmy makes a life-changing phone call to copper Joe that Gus’s Fashions & Shoes’ second act takes off plot-wise and we figure out just what Klier has brought us together for.

2 Without giving away too much, there’s been a murder, and though one of Gus’s Fashions & Shoes’ characters is the prime suspect, he won’t be the one rotting in jail if Gus has anything to do with it.

Suffice it to say that once plot kicks in, so do the dramatic fireworks, highlighted by a pair of one-on-one scenes so electric they could easily become acting class faves, and so electrically played that it would be impossible to single out one best-in-show performance in an all-around best-in-show bunch.

Broadway/Steppenwolf vet Maffia is so real a Gus, you’d swear he walked onto the Vs. stage from the St. Louis shoe store next door (give or take 1800 miles), and the guy can give an authentic-looking shave as well.

Since a great performance is as much reacting as acting, watch closely as Maffia reacts to his brilliant scene partners Moler and Johnson, all three of whom seem to have lived decades inside their skins.

4 As for the cast’s younger members, recent Oklahoma-to-L.A. transplant Boeck and Florida native Abdullah (who played multiple parts to perfection in Theatre Banshee’s Trevor) vanish so completely into their roles that you’d swear they were slacker-rapper sidekicks and not the university-trained actors they are, and Abdullah has a rap solo that could make him a player in a whole other domain.

3 As was true with Cops And Friends Of Cops, production designer Danny Cistone shares star billing with the acting fivesome who perform on his absolutely dazzling set, easily one of the year’s most meticulously detailed design winners. (I couldn’t possibly count the number of shoe boxes, hangered outfits, and assorted knickknacks and memorabilia that clutter Cistone’s brilliantly conceived and executed set.)

Gus’s Fashions & Shoes reunites Cistone with Cops And Friends Of Cops design team Gelareh Khalioun (costumes), Derrick McDaniel (lighting), Klier (sound), and Ned Mochel (violence) to stunning effect. Khalioun’s 1990 street wear fits each character’s idiosyncrasies to a T, McDaniel’s lighting and Klier’s sound design (and pounding rap beats) up the dramatic tension every step of the way, and Mochel’s stage violence is as realistic as it gets, a textbook example for any fight choreographer who wants to know how it’s done.

Production stage manager Samantha Franco gets bonus points for the show’s post-performance requirements.

Additional deserved program credits go to Mercedes Manning (art director) and James Elkin (assistant director).

Gus’s Fashions & Shoes is produced by Vs. Theatre Company artistic director Johnny Clark and by Tommy Dunn.

The second in Klier’s proposed “St. Louis Trilogy,” Gus’s Fashions & Shoes is Los Angeles 99-seat plan intimate theater at its world-class best, and once Act Two kicks into gear, it will hold you riveted, and cheering an ensemble who do the real-life Gus’s Fashions & Shoes folk proud.

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Vs. Theatre, 5453 West Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
May 7, 2015
Photos: Azul DelGrasso

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