The Deceivers: Fast Company, Don’t Dress, The Guardsman, The Liar

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“Deception? Deception?” Those words are Amanda Wingfield’s, opening the second scene of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, after she has been shocked by her discovery that her seemingly innocent daughter hasn’t been attending Rubicam’s Business College after all.

Although it’s often seen as shameful, deception is also one of the great engines of the theater. Not surprisingly, an art form that usually asks its audience to suspend disbelief is fascinated by the dramatic possibilities of deceptions, large and small.

In American theater, deception often takes the form of secrets that are ultimately exposed to the harsh light of reality. These exposures usually result in serious scenes of catharsis, often among families.

Emily Kuroda, Jackie Chung, Lawrence Kao and Nelson Lee in "Fast Company." Photo by
Jackie Chung, Emily Kuroda, Lawrence Kao and Nelson Lee in “Fast Company.” Photo by Debora Robinson/SCR.

But a parallel theatrical tradition exists of winking at deceptions, enjoying their artfulness, even luxuriating in them. From this perspective, they provide evidence of the imaginative powers of human beings. In order to create something new, it must first be imagined before it’s ever a reality, right?

Of course “deceptions” often hurt other people — fictions gone bad. But right now we have a burst of comedies that play with the subject of deception without the requisite condemnation of it that usually takes place in more self-consciously serious drama.

I saw four such plays over the weekend, set in different eras. I’ll start with the most contemporary, Fast Company at South Coast Repertory. Then I’ll hopscotch back through the 20th century with Don’t Dress for Dinner, set in the swingin’ ‘60s, and The Guardsman from 1910. Then we’ll go all the way back to the 17th century — but as interpreted through a contemporary sensibility, in The Liar.

In Carla Ching’s Fast Company, secrets are a vital condition for the success of the family business — grifting. Yes, Mable (Emily Kuroda) raised her three now-adult children to be professional con artists, in the family tradition.

She also raised them to have each other’s backs. But that part of the message didn’t sink in as deeply as the swindling part. In Ching’s play, the family that grifts together — drifts apart.

Mable’s daughter Blue (Jackie Chung) is the most enthusiastic carrier of the family trade. Blue’s brothers H (Nelson Lee) and Francis (Lawrence Kao) have more experience in the business but are growing weary of it. Blue usually works now with unrelated con artists, because H has become a sportswriter, and Francis has left con artistry to become a professional escape artist on national TV.

But Blue recruits H to join her in a job involving the theft and replication of a rare comic book, with the intent of selling a fake to a mark — and they soon encounter big trouble. Blue seeks help from Francis, who insists on seeking additional help from Mable. The family members become entangled in rounds of intramural conning, ultimately resulting in a big family reunion. Missing from the action are the children’s two fathers, who reportedly left long ago. Also, we never meet any of the family’s victims — except for one another, of course.

Lawrence Kao and Nelson Lee
Lawrence Kao and Nelson Lee

Ching has more on her mind than simply amusing us with watching con artists at work. Blue’s cover is that she attends Brown, where she has learned about game theory, and she’s determined to integrate what she has learned into her real profession.

The others are skeptical of this. Mable, in fact, thinks formal higher education is useless, almost as if Ching wrote Mable’s part with the intent to fly in the face of the “tiger Mom” stereotype of the Asian mother who forces her children into overachievement in legit trades.  At the same time, as we hear of some of Mable’s previous child-rearing techniques, she sounds almost like a tiger Mom in her own way — but one who is simply interested in the illegit trades.

Under the direction of Bart DeLorenzo, the quartet of actors is in top form. And DeLorenzo has enlisted projection designer Jason H. Thompson to bridge the scene changes with Saul Bass-inspired video design that keep the pacing as fast as the title.

The play held me almost all of the way, but near the end of the last scene (relax — this is not really a spoiler) Ching employs a card game. More often than not, this is a mistake in the theater, where the audience generally can’t see the cards, and this particular card game strikes me as just a little implausible. But the play is good enough that I’m willing to see it again — with a better ending.

Fast Company, South Coast Repertory Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. Tues-Fri 7 :45 pm, Sat-Sun 2 pm and 7:45 pm. Closes with at the matinee on Oct 27. www.scr.org. 714-708-5555.

Marc Camoletti’s French sex farces are enjoying a 21st-century renaissance, first with the success of Boeing-Boeing and now with Don’t Dress for Dinner, at International City Theatre. Judging from La Mirada Theatre’s production of Boeing-Boeing earlier this year, I was not a believer. I’m not entirely convinced by Don’t Dress for Dinner either, but at least it strikes me as funnier than Boeing-Boeing. It’s also somewhat less dated, as it doesn’t involve the shenanigans of husband-hunting stewardesses.

Amie Farrell, Karen Jean Olds, Michael Cusimano and Afton Quast in "Don't Dress for Dinner." Photo by Suzanne Mapes.
Amie Farrell, Karen Jean Olds, Michael Cusimano and Afton Quast in “Don’t Dress for Dinner.” Photo by Suzanne Mapes.

Don’t Dress for Dinner is almost a sequel to Boeing-Boeing, in that both plays involve a ‘60s-style playboy, Bernard (Greg Deralian), and his somewhat less lascivious friend Robert (Matthew Wrather). In Don’t Dress for Dinner, however, Bernard is married to the glamorous Jacqueline (Amie Farrell). The play was actually set in the ‘80s when it first appeared in France in 1987, but in Robin Hawdon’s English translation and in Todd Nielsen’s ICT staging, it’s set in the ‘60s, which seems a better fit than the ‘80s would have, at least for English-speaking audiences.

It’s a standard-issue sex farce, in which the sole aim is to put would-be philanderers of both sexes into ever-more-ridiculous situations as they attempt to hide their infidelity. The confusion is complicated by the use of two women characters with similar names — Suzette and Suzanne. The former, played by Karen Jean Olds, arrives as the cook but is conscripted into playing several other identities as the evening progresses, generating a lion’s share of the laughs.

The laughs do arrive, but they never reach the sidesplitting point that I’ve experienced at the same theater with similar but somewhat more dimensional fare — for example, How the Other Half Loves, also directed by Nielsen for ICT.

Don’t Dress for Dinner, International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes Nov 3.  www.InternationalCityTheatre.com. 562-436-4610.

In Ferenc Molnár’s The Guardsman, at A Noise Within, an over-the-top actor (Freddy Douglas) is attempting to cheat on himself. He suspects that his recent bride (Elyse Mirto) has a wandering eye — what better way to test her loyalty than by employing his own skills as an actor?

When he’s supposedly out of town, he dons a wig, mustache, costume and a thick accent and poses as a military officer — the title character — to see if his wife will respond to this mysterious stranger’s romantic overtures. She does, to a limited extent. But when he calls her on it and drops his disguise, she nonchalantly informs him that she was never duped — indeed , that she was duping him in her responses to his little game.

Elyse Mirto and Freddy Douglas in "The Guardsman." Photo by Craig Schwartz.
Elyse Mirto and Freddy Douglas in “The Guardsman.” Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Robertson Dean plays a critic who apparently hangs out with this couple during most of their waking hours. In a musical adaptation of this same material, Enter the Guardsman (which I reviewed at Laguna Playhouse in 2000), the “critic” character was converted into a playwright, who spent so much time with the couple because he was writing their next vehicle, just as he had written the current play in which they both were appearing. He took notes on their behavior for professional reasons. Here poor Dean is stuck with having no reasons whatsoever for his character’s over-involvement in the personal lives of these two actors.

The English translation is by Frank Marcus. Michael Michetti directed, but he succeeds in bringing this musty old chestnut to life only sporadically. Nowadays a play with a similar premise would be turned into a 75- or a 90-minute sketch with no intermission; this one has been extended beyond its appropriate length. Not every old play is a classic.

The Guardsman, A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. In repertory; resumes Nov. 1. Closes Nov 30. www.anoisewithin.org. 626-356-3100 x1.

Sometimes a modern translation/adaptation can make an old play sound like a classic, even if we might not feel that way if we were to see the original in a less inspired “translaptation” — which is the word David Ives uses for his version of Corneille’s The Liar, now being produced by Antaeus.

Actually, Ives’ translaptation had an advantage over presumably more faithful translations such as Marcus’ version of The Guardsman. Corneille’s original Le Menteur was in verse, and Ives’ decision to honor that by using English-language couplets, in iambic pentameter, more or less forced him to come up with a lot more clever wordplay, with a much more contemporary sound, than you hear from Marcus’ translation of The Guardsman.

Nicholas D'Agosto, Kate Maher and Gigi Bermingham in "The Liar." Photo by Geoffrey Wade.
Nicholas D’Agosto, Kate Maher and Gigi Bermingham in “The Liar.” Photo by Geoffrey Wade.

And so The Liar glitters as it goes through its paces in Casey Stangl’s staging. Or it least it does with the cast that I saw, which was a Friday-night mixture of the two basic casts that perform on Saturdays and Sundays.

Of the four “deception” plays that I saw this weekend, The Liar is not only the oldest by far (1643), but it goes the farthest in glorifying the notion of elaborate lying as an exercise of imaginative vision. The central character Dorante (Graham Hamilton, in the cast I saw) is a handsome, brilliant, confident and successful version of the “pathological liar” that Jon Lovitz used to play on Saturday Night Live. He just can’t stop the tales that whirl out of his mouth, without any respect at all for their veracity.

When this guy claims an exemplary military record, it’s much more convincing than anything Molnár’s Guardsman might say.  And, also in comparison to The Guardsman, the play is helped immensely by the variety of other characters who surround Dorante — from his gullible servant (Brian Slaten) to the contrasting young women (Kate Maher and Ann Noble) whose names Dorante mixes up, to the two contrasting servants (played by one actress — Karen Malina White in the cast I saw). Actually, with the confusion of names and servants, you begin to see that Camoletti, in Don’t Dress for Dinner (see the segment of the column two shows above), called on a French comic tradition that goes back more than three centuries.

You may not remember the plot very well a few days after you see The Liar, but you’ll remember the exuberance of Dorante and his deceptions, and you’ll laugh.

The Liar, Antaeus Theater, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.  Thu-Fri 8 pm. Sat 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes Dec 1.  www.Antaeus.org. 818-506-1983.

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Don Shirley

Don Shirley

Don Shirley writes about theater for LA Observed. He is the former longtime theater writer for the Los Angeles Times, LA Stage Times and other publications.