(Costa Mesa, CA) October, 2013 – Whenever people talk about stories that involve con men and grifters, a number of quality movie titles come to mind: “Diggstown,” “Catch Me if You Can,” “House of Games,” “Now You See Me,” and, of course, “The Grifters.” There are also the television shows “Leverage” and its British counterpart, “Hustle.” And then, there is the film that broke the mold: George Roy Hill’s Oscar award-winning masterpiece, “The Sting.” For any story that deals with scams and scammers, amoral and emotional slight-of-hand, and lots of money being taken away before the victim knows what’s happening, certain prerequisites must be fulfilled: the characters have to be intriguing, the dialogue must be snappy and sharp, the plot must be intricate where the audience actually has to pay attention (brain-deadness is absolutely forbidden), and, if possible, there must be a twist. To film this complex genre is difficult enough, but to write and produce a theatre production that deals with grifters and “the long con” adds to the challenge even more so. Fortunately, at South Coast Repertory, the playwright, director and the stars grab that challenge by the throat with the World Premiere of FAST COMPANY. Newcomer scribe Carla Ching creates an entertaining tale involving family, the grifter life, and a valuable comic book.
It was the scam to end all scams. Blue Kwan (Jackie Chung) collaborates with her brother H (Nelson Lee) in stealing the world’s most valuable comic book: Action Comics #1, featuring the debut of Superman. All goes well until H breaks the Number One Code of grifting in order to pay off a gambling debt: never backstab your own crew, which is exactly what he did with Blue when he took off with the comic after the scam, leaving his sister in the lurch. With her reputation on the line---after all, a grifter being swindled by her own brother can make anyone look like an amateur, Blue asks the only two people she can “trust” for help: Francis (Lawrence Kao), her other brother who has forsaken the grifting lifestyle by performing card tricks and death-defying stunts in Vegas, and Mabel (Emily Kuroda), the matriarch of the Kwan clan, who knows every scam and con in the book in order to perform her own machinations behind her children’s backs.
To say any more would give away the plot turns and twists, as well as the delightful character quirks that are revealed in the play, and this is due to the playwright Carla Ching. The dialogue snaps like a whip and the plot propels the audience through scene after scene without the sensation of being rushed. The characters are far from Asian stereotypes: every character is thoroughly fleshed out, showing a side in the story that comes as a surprise each time a character tells a certain story about their life as a grifter. Ching’s voice as a playwright is strong, and as she creates more works, she will evolve and emerge as a new dramatic force in the years yet to come.
The collaboration between Bart DeLorenzo’s direction and the scenic design, lighting design, and projection design (Keith Mitchell, Tom Ontiveros, and Jason H. Thompson, respectively) are impressively fluidic and dynamic in keeping the audience entertained from beginning to end. The retro lighting and computer graphics, along with the captions of certain scenes and scams, move as though it were a film being produced on the stage instead of a play, and bravo to DeLorenzo and his design crew for orchestrating such a vibrant setting for the story.
Every single cast member is perfect for their respective roles. Chung’s Blue wonderfully balances her sensitivity and vulnerability with a type of street wisdom that she would do anything to get her thieving brother to return what is owed to her, especially if it means hiring a notorious torturer called “The Dentist.” Kao’s comic timing is masterful as he believably displays Kao’s loyalty to Blue, while still giving hints that even though he has the gift to grift, he is sickened by the damages his family has caused to their marks; he is clearly the “conscience” of the clan. Lee’s H is both charming and desperate as a gambling addict who wants to leave the life not because of the moral implications, but because he’s simply not good in grifting. And Kuroda’s Mable is a true dysfunctional matriarch whose desire for her family to be the best con artists in America is severely flawed when she emotionally scars her children in different capacities. The chemistry between all four artists is magical and that is the key of Fast Company’s success as a world premiere at South Coast Repertory.
Peter A. Balaskas is a journalist, fiction writer, editor, and voice over artist.
Fast Company opened October 6-27 2013
South Coast Repertory: Julianne Argyros Stage
655 Town Center Drive,
Costa Mesa, CA 92628-2197
Photos by Debora Robinson (except noted otherwise)