After attending Wednesday’s opening night of “Art Heist” at the Broward Center, I’m still not sure if the show qualifies as a mobile theatrical experience or a glorified infomercial. However it is classified, the offbeat project’s muddled mixture of history, mystery and whimsy doesn’t work.
The script, such as one exists, is amassed from research into the 1990 Gardner Museum theft in Boston, in which a pair of criminals, posing as police officers, infiltrated the museum in the early morning hours and made off with 13 works of art valued at half a billion dollars. “Art Heist” attendees pose at FBI recruits, attempting to crack the case by questioning its four chief suspects at outdoor locations around the Broward Center campus, with assistance from fellow-actors portraying federal agents.
And so we meet Rick Abath, the shambolic pothead security guard on duty, on whose lenient watch the robbery took place—and who remains a possible accomplice. Next, we’re introduced to David Turner, a career criminal whose auto shop served as a Boston mob front, and who reportedly told an FBI source that he had access to the paintings. Rounding out this rogues’ gallery is Brian McDevitt, New England con artist with a struggling literary career and a shaky alibi; and Myles J. Connor Jr., a loquacious admitted art thief whose incarceration the night of the Gardner heist has not tamped down suspicions of his involvement.
A production of California-based Right Angle Entertainment, “Art Heist” contains no program or identified actors, which is probably just as well: While the portrayer of Connor is most convincing, the actors invariably had trouble with the few lines they memorized, and attempts at improvisation—a skill baked into the show, since we as the audience have free reign to question them however we see fit—founder more than they shine.
There are also issues with the way the show is presented, which is hip and tech-forward in theory but frantic and clunky in practice. We’re encouraged to scan a QR code on our phone at the show’s outset, and to follow along with various “clues”—essentially multimedia talking points to help us better question the suspects—in transit between our 15-minute interrogations of the actors. This means we’re supposed to read select passages, watch videos and listen to audio snippets, staring at our devices while avoiding pedestrians, blocking out ambient sound, and being interrupted from doing so—often—by the actors playing FBI specialists. It’s an unreasonable commitment even for tech-minded guests such as myself.
But it’s the unavoidable anticlimax that makes this experience such a drag. I’m not spoiling anything, because there is nothing to spoil: The Gardner heist is, quite famously, a cold case, and so “Art Heist” fails to reward our careful sleuthing with any sort of resolution. We invest our brainpower into the experience, only to be left with more homework. We’re told to read a book about the case, and to watch a forthcoming Netflix docuseries about it. And that’s it. (A better option would have been to script an entirely fictional mystery from scratch, one with an irrefutably logical conclusion, and see how many detail-oriented audience members could solve it, like a roving “Mousetrap.”)
I certainly appreciate any opportunity to experience live entertainment in a time when most indoor cultural spaces remain dark, and to its credit, “Art Heist” was conceived as a COVID-safe offering. Masks are required, and just about anybody will feel comfortable in the open air, provided they don a decent pair of walking shoes. But as a work of theatre, “Art Heist” is a bit like the Gardner investigation itself: a frustrating dead end.
“Art Heist” runs through April 4 at Broward Center, 201 S.W. Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets run $39.50-$44.50. Call 954/462-0222 or visit browardcenter.org.