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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Den of Thieves. The idea of a bunch of misfits trying to pull off the perfect crime has been done to death, then buried, then cremated, then reanimated as a zombie, shot by an angry mob, and buried a second time. But Den of Thieves, making its Bay Area premiere at SF Playhouse, has a lot going for it despite relying on this trope. Maggie is in a 12-step program for kleptomaniacs; Paul is her sponsor — in fact, he's in so many 12-step programs that he's probably your sponsor, too. These two characters, expertly played by Kathryn Tkel and Casey Jackson, are the appealing and resonant heart of a story that is fast, energetic, and hilarious. The script by Stephen Adly Guirgis (who also wrote Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train) charms from the very first moments, and feels far shorter than its two-hour run time. Not all is perfect: Wannabe Hispanic gangster Flaco (Chad Deverman) is almost irredeemably over the top, and "dancer" Boochie (Corinne Proctor) — exactly the character you'd imagine from her name — forgoes a top entirely in her line of work. And what's with the accents? We get it, people: You're in New York. Still, with the second act's strong opening, and two mobsters played with perfect comic timing, Den of Thieves keeps things animated and makes for a great night out. Through April 17 at SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter (at Powell), S.F. $40; 677-9596 or (Benjamin Wachs) Reviewed March 31.

Desperate Affection. Maddie (Melissa O'Keefe), a struggling New York actress, might just have a good thing going with Richard (Cliff McCormick), a ... uh. .. what was his line of work again? He's a tad evasive on that subject, not to mention strangely teddy-bear-phobic, but otherwise quite attentive and considerate. Suffice to say that Richard's job is what brought Maddie into his life, and what most threatens to remove her from it; taking their relationship to the next level will be a matter of profound magnanimity. To give away any more of Bruce Graham's mordant and pardonably ridiculous comedy would be to spoil it, but it does seem important to add that he has enough wit and perspective to suggest a moral equivalency between dinner theater and murder-for-hire. And these two actors, clearly and appealingly a twisted pair of individuals, enjoy themselves, each other, and the proceedings very much. If O'Keefe seems to overuse her nonverbal hesitations here and there, perhaps it's by design, as a counterpoint to the diverting inscrutability of McCormick's poker face. Videographer Rand Courtney's stylish intro and ending take things unnecessarily into the motion-picture realm; otherwise Andrey Esterlis' brisk direction cleverly consists of staying out of the play's way. Through April 10 at Royce Gallery, 2901 Mariposa (at Harrison), S.F. $28; 888-811-4111 or (Jonathan Kiefer) Reviewed March 31.

The Sugar Witch. Set in the tangle of a haunted Florida swamp in the late 1920s, The Sugar Witch has all the trappings of a Southern Gothic melodrama, or better yet, a Southern version of a Martin McDonagh play. In addition to mentions of flying cats, reptile women, and an ancient curse, there are two guys trying to have a romance, a fat woman killing palmetto bugs, a shotgun-wielding blonde, and, of course, a resident witch. Nathan Sanders' moody script does an admirable job tying these elements into a rich story about family secrets, murder, and attempting to break from sins of the past. The problem is that this production fails to commit wholeheartedly to the genre — something it needs to do twofold in order for an audience to believe this supernatural soap opera. Scenic designer Kuo-Hao Lo has created a gorgeously creepy set that looks as if it's sinking into the swamp's mysteries, but his terrific stage design is undermined by some of the acting and directing. While some actors are seriously grounded in this world, others appear to be camping it up. This discrepancy keeps Saunders' eerie play from truly spooking. Through April 11 at New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Oak), S.F. $20-$40; 861-8972 or (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed March 24.

Acts of Life, Love, and Lunacy: A comedy by Rey Carolino. Starting April 9, Fridays, Saturdays. Continues through April 24. The Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Post), 989-0023,

Adia Whitaker's Ampey!: April 9-10, 8 p.m., $10-$12, all ages. La Peña Cultural Center, 3105 Shattuck (at Prince), Berkeley, 510-849-2568,

... and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi: Presented by Cutting Ball Theater. Thursdays-Sundays. Continues through April 25, (800) 838-3006, Exit Theatre on Taylor, 277 Taylor (at Ellis),

Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?: Josh Kornbluth's comedy. Starting April 11, Thursdays-Sundays. Continues through May 16. The Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida (at Mariposa), 292-1233,

Antigone: Sophocles' play, featuring Pi: The Physical Comedy Troupe. Through April 17. Boxcar Theatre, 505 Natoma (at Sixth St.), 776-1747,

April Fools Festival: Clown-based performance fest. Through May 2. Climate Theater, 285 Ninth St. (at Folsom), 263-0830,

Baby: A Musical: Presented by Ray of Light Theatre. Thursdays-Sundays. Continues through April 19. Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 336-0513,

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