Theater Review: “Fast Company” — An Amusing Comedy About Flimflammers

Fast Company may be light entertainment, but director M. Bevin O’Gara has assembled her own remarkable crew of performers for this breezy caper comedy.

Fast Company by Carla Ching. Directed by M. Bevin O’Gara. Presented by the Lyric Stage Company, Boston, MA, through March 27.

Sam Simah, Theresa Nguyen, and Lin-Ann Ching Kocar in the Lyric Stage Company production of "Fast Company.". Photo: Mark S. Howard

Tyler Simahk, Theresa Nguyen, and Lin-Ann Ching Kocar in the Lyric Stage Company production of “Fast Company.” Photo: Mark S. Howard

By Ian Thal

The lights go up as Belinda Kwan, better known as Blue (Theresa Nguyen), is admiring the work of her brother Henry, also known as H (Michael Hisamoto). H is an art forger, and his latest work is a forgery of Action Comics #1 – a 1938 publication valued by collectors for being the first appearance Superman (in 2014 an authenticated copy sold for $3.2 million). The Kwans are from a family of con-artists. The siblings’ plan is to steal the genuine article from its owner, and sell the forgery to another collector who thinks he’s purchasing the real thing at a bargain price.

Not surprisingly, the plan quickly goes awry. Members of Blue’s team are fingered after someone absconds with the original Action Comics #1 that she took. Blue goes to her other brother, Frankie (Tyler Simahk), who has quit crime and now uses his gift for deceit and misdirection as a celebrity magician and escape artist with regular television and casino gigs. They quickly realize that it was H was the one who “broke code” – betraying his own sister in order to raise the money to pay off a gambling debt owed to a notorious organized crime figure. If they’re going to con H into returning the comic and get the heat off of Blue, they’ll need Mabel (Lin-Ann Ching Kocar), the Kwan family matriarch.

Fans of the caper genre know what to expect: double crosses, strategizing, and then the thrill of watching a plan come to fruition or deal with surprising challenges and complications. The family dynamics add a bit of a wrinkle to the proceedings; the kids harbor resentments towards Mabel’s child-rearing practices. But the focus on the characters’ likability limits the dramatic depth that the Lyric Stage’s charismatic cast can draw out of the script. The conventional focus is on the skills each grifter brings to the proceedings: Nguyen’s Blue is spunky as the little sister. She’s still in school — somehow finds time to study economics — and wants to prove to her big brothers (and her mother) that she has what it takes to run a crew, even as she invests her performance with childish gestures meant to deflect criticism. Blue introduces concepts borrowed from game theory, such as brinksmanship and credibility of threat, as a means to better con a con. Simahk (with the able assistance from magic consultant Evan Northrup for his slight-of-hand work) plays Frankie as the suave showman. Hisamoto’s H is the everyman schlub who just happens to be a master forger with a gambling problem. And Kocar’s Mabel provides the familiar figure of the the old-school con artist who knows all the standard tricks; she serves as a wise mentor who offers an unconventional lesson in family values. Family can cloud one’s judgement – a danger in their line of work – even if it is the most important thing.

Fast Company was originally developed as part of a 2013 EST/Sloan Commission to create a play that incorporates game theory. Ching has rewritten parts of the play a number of times (there have been three previous stagings.) This production is the premiere of the latest iteration of the play. At that point in its development, this is a fun, entertaining caper but not particularly substantial caper that, not surprisingly, given Ching’s background as a television writer (she has contributed episodes both to AMC’s The Walking Dead and USA Network’s Graceland), could easily be reworked into the pilot for an episodic series.

Not only do the characters exude the requisite ‘likeability’ and “relatability,’ after all, these cons aren’t out to kill anyone, and only steal from those who can afford or deserve it, but the script ends in an open-ended manner with the planning of the next caper. At this point, one should stop being surprised that a younger generation of playwrights, especially ones already writing on a work-for-hire basis in the television industry, are writing stage plays that don’t simply echo the conventions of genre television (in the case of the caper story, think of episodic series like Hustle or Leverage), but seem to be designed as pitches for a series in which original author will serve as show runner while retaining ownership of her intellectual property.

Fast Company may be light entertainment, but director M. Bevin O’Gara has assembled her own remarkable crew to present this caper. Cameron Anderson’s set design evokes the former industrial loft spaces that are often the backgrounds for television crime dramas. However, she adds several clever touches: camouflaged secret doors and compartments in the gray brick broken up by the red lattice motif associated with traditional Chinese architecture. Arshan Gailus provides a dynamic free jazz score of thumping upright bass and drum kit between the scenes. However, what audiences are most likely to remember most are Garrett Herzig’s animations projected on the gray brick wall. Herzig evokes the lettering styles of American comic books in supertitles that announce the grifting or game-theory strategy about to play out in the next scene. Elsewhere, fans will likely recognize homages to the iconic illustrations of such comic greats as Steve Ditko, Bob Kane, Sheldon Moldoff, and Jack Kirby (whose figurative foreshortening is unmistakable even in silouhette.)

Fans of light-hearted, middle-brow caper/procedurals, will no doubt enjoy Fast Company. They might even hope that this play becomes a series and they get to see the Kwans in action again — this time on the small screen. Given the explosion of cookie-cutter boutique television, it is only a matter of time before a network, studio, or streaming content provider will seriously consider picking up a program starring an Asian-American family of con artists – along with shows revolving around an African-American family of hucksters, an Arab-American family of grifters, et cetera. Diverse representation within genre conventions is an easier sell than diverse representation with narrative innovation.

Ian Thal is a playwright, performer, and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.

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