It takes a few minutes to realize that the rotary-dial phone, hi-fi console and streamlined dresser are not supposed to suggest that Catch Me If You Can is set in an old, tacky vacation lodge in the Catskills—those estate-sale treasures were modern accouterments when this comic mystery premiered on Broadway in 1965. Even 40 years ago, however, its broad-and-shallow characters, rickety story line and rim-shot humor were remnants of a dying dramatic era. Maybe that's why the original production (which starred Tom Bosley!) ran for only three months.
Yet Catch Me If You Can does deliver a payoff at the end of its two hours of wisecrackery and shortcomings—a sudden twist in the plot that immediately solves the mystery in a way that is practically impossible to anticipate but completely plausible. After enduring an evening of wise-guy one-liners from a Jewish police inspector, an Irish priest, a double-crossing blonde, a dim-bulb shopkeeper and a nattering new husband who's somehow lost his wife on their honeymoon, the audience lets go its biggest and truest laugh at itself for never seeing where all this was going.
Because of the clichd quality of its script, it's hard to say how good a job the cast has done with what it's got to work with. However, the production probably lost its best chance to overcome its inherent deficiencies when Daren Flam was cast in the lead role of Daniel Corban, the husband whose new wife has gone missing. This is the character we're supposed to identify with, the normal guy who's suddenly thrust into a tragic circumstance in a strange place filled with eccentric people. But Flam never gives us anybody we'd want to identify with, playing Corban as the flightiest, slapstickiest of the bunch. Yes, there are reasons for his obnoxious edginess; still, we ought to at least be able to sympathize with the guy. Flam makes that impossible.
The most pleasant surprise was the performance of understudy Carolyn Gage, who stepped into the role of Elizabeth Corban—or at least, the character ruthlessly pretending to be her—and became the shiveringly convincing embodiment of fresh-faced evil.
If you're going to enjoy Catch Me If You Can—and, truth is, it probably is a matter of choice—it's best to approach the play as you would a B movie, celebrating its goofy failures on the way to a finish that makes them all worthwhile.
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CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, AT THE LONG BEACH PLAYHOUSE, 5021 E. ANAHEIM STREET, LONG BEACH, (562) 494-1014; WWW.LBPH.COM. FRI.-SAT., 8 P.M.; SUN., 2 P.M. THROUGH FEB. 10. $12-$22.