Fast Company: Theater Review

Zingy comedy of a family of grifters brightly exposes the manipulative cons practiced by less flamboyant kinsfolk, like ourselves. 

South Coast Repertory in Orange County presents Carla Ching's sharp look at a family of grifters.

Blue (Jackie Chung) brings in brother H (Nelson Lee) as The Fixer to set up a big score: proffering a mark a stolen copy of the most valuable of comic book collectibles, Action Comics No. 1, the first appearance of Superman, for $1.5 million. The plan is to switch it for a counterfeit copy, returning the original before the vindictive owner discovers it missing. But H, a compulsive gambler in deep hock to deadly shylocks, betrays his sister and steals the comic himself.

Reluctantly, Blue, who has enrolled at Brown to study game theory as a cover for her hustles, summons her other brother, Francis (Lawrence Kao), retired from the Game to become a Las Vegas magician. Francis, in turn, insists they must enlist their estranged mother, Mable (Emily Kuroda, “Mrs. Kim” of The Gilmore Girls), a veteran Bunco artist who had schooled them in the hardest of ways to trust no one – not even, perhaps especially, one another, and yet never, ever, to “break code” with your Crew.

Festooned with kicky projected graphics to define the grifter roles of The Lure, The Roper and The Inside Man, and to chart the globe-hopping travel (on the run or in pursuit), South Coast Repertory’s world premiere of Carla Ching's Fast Company propels speedily through an unceasingly spinning web of fakes, stratagems and misdirections. It provides an ongoing primer on how to manipulate greed, gullibility and guilt. The discourse can get a little pedantic. The dialogue never quite as bright as it intends to be (John von Neumann’s game theory is particularly unconvincingly deployed). And the characterizations rarely venture beyond admittedly deft and detailed sketches.

Nevertheless, this kicky and effervescent entertainment exerts a mongoose grip on a rich and deep theme: how families exploit their mutual vulnerabilities for selfish motives, as well as for “their own good.” Though we hear about many swindles perpetrated on others, onstage all we see are three siblings and a mother committing cons against one another. This powerful metaphor for primal relationships gaudily theatricalizes the most prosaic of interpersonal interactions and offers valuable insights through its dodges, subterfuges and intricate gamesmanship.

Fast Company may seem like a relentless indulgence in elaborate play, but underneath the glib and glossy maneuvers (and a faux-sentimental denouement), it offers a harsh take on the hardness of life and how one remains ever alone, even together. Like these flamboyantly amoral characters, we just can’t help it.

Director Bart DeLorenzo animates the action with such unflagging verve that he propels it past the bumpy moments and gives the text its best chance to shine. His actors are cast for charisma and dash, and just modest doses of charm. They deliver pleasurably dexterous performances, suggesting feelings while showily suppressing them.

It’s particularly gratifying to see Asians in these sort of roles, their ethnicity never scanted yet subordinate to their individuality, essentially beside the point. Kuroda, of course, has been a titan of area stages for decades, quite delicious as the withholding, monstrous matriarch, and Chung, Kao and Lee make one eager to see more of what they can do.

Venue: South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa (runs through Oct. 27)

Cast: Emily Kuroda, Jackie Chung, Nelson Lee, Lawrence Kao

Director: Bart DeLorenzo

Playwright: Carla Ching

Set designer: Keith Mitchell

Lighting designer: Tom Ontiveros

Music & sound designer: John Ballinger

Costume designer: Ann Closs-Farley