Fast Company Is Carla Ching's Master Grift
Lost a Facebook friend—one of the few I actually know in non-Zuckerberg land—after posting the following one Mother's Day: "Regardless of your relationship with your mother, try [to] remember she did the best she could. Even if she were cruel, manipulative or psychotic, that's all she had to work with. And, screwed up as she was, she taught you something, as rotten or dreadful as it may have been."
Of course, the turning-lemons-into-lemonade homily, even though part of the great American myth of rugged individualism and the self-made man and woman, clashes with another hallowed staple of Americana: blaming other people for your messed-up shit. That usually manifests politically, when fingers are pointed at liberals/tea-partiers/centrists/Democrats/Republicans/red staters/blue staters/foreigners/whitey/Muslims/Jews/the poor/the wealthy/whatever. But it also manifests on a personal level, as typified by the family at the center of the world premiere of Carla Ching's brisk and entertaining, if a touch cliché-riddled and undercooked, play Fast Company. A family of four Asian-Americans whose business is grifting (i.e., conning people) becomes embroiled in the classic "pig in a poke" swindle, basically switching an inferior product for the real deal. In this case, it's $1.5 million of real deal, a mint copy of Action Comics No. 1, the first appearance of Superman.
Blue (a dynamic Jackie Chung), the youngest of our four grifters, knows a copy of the book is owned by a Hollywood dude known for his "exploding helicopter" movies. Her plan is to steal it from his mansion, replacing it with an expertly forged copy, crafted by her brother H (a nuanced Nelson Lee). Then she'll recruit a crew and serve as the inside man (the crew member in charge) and con some mark into buying the original, only to drop another copy into his hands at the last moment.
Unfortunately, H, a hopelessly addicted—and very bad—gambler, is in deep with a Russian guy threatening to break his legs for an outstanding debt. This poses some complications for Blue, who must call in her retired-from-grifting/stage-illusionist brother, Francis (a charismatic Lawrence Kao), and the family matriarch, Mable (an at-times-a-bit-too-salty Emily Kuroda) in for backup.
Mable's presence is problematic. More Ma Barker than Ma Joad, Mable is a tough-as-horse-hide inveterate grifter who groomed her three children to follow in her footsteps, beginning with a ritual she imposed upon them when they turned 10: Stranding them miles away from their house and telling them to get back somehow. It was their first test, and Blue's inability to return home for more than two days was all the proof Mable needed that the kid wasn't cut out for the life.
Though lacking the grifting skills of her older brothers (she has mainly been used as the lure), Blue has a keen intellect. She studies math at Brown University (more as a cover for her criminal lifestyle than serious academic endeavor) and has come across game theory, which studies human interaction and decisions in competitive environments as a way to mathematically predict outcomes in business, economics and even poker. The purloining of the comic is Blue's big career move, something to elevate her from the lower rung of lure to leader of her own crew—which, of course, makes bringing in her family to help clean up her mess all the more distasteful.
Ching knows her grifter lingo well and is obviously a student and fan of classic Hollywood con movies. As is director Bart DeLorenzo, who teams with Keith Mitchell to create a slick, very Hollywood-like, image-intensive series of moving screens, including maps charting characters' movement (they range from Buenos Aires and Las Vegas to New York) to textual projections of their roles in each con (think Guy Ritchie's music video-cum-film Snatch). It's cinematic storytelling, but it adds to the piece's frenetic pace rather than getting in the way of the dialogue.
But Ching's script, while clever and witty, relies too much on clichés, from "two birds, one stone" and "brass tacks" to "cold feet." It's the kind of dialogue that works fine in a period piece for grifters, but these are highly intelligent, 21st-century grifters (one goes to an Ivy League school, another writes for the erudite sports website Grantland), and there's something awkward about hearing the archaic dialogue from their mouths.
The plot also feels too simplistic; for such smart people capable of orchestrating advanced cons and trained to detect any lying in others, they sure seem to get duped very easily. Then again, this involves a family, strained as their personal relationships may be, and if anyone intimately knows the strengths and weaknesses of one another, it is family members.
Though this is a play awash in grifter terminology and an homage to that oft-mined strain of American storytelling, it's really a play about family, of lessons learned or not, and wisdom received—or not. And while we don't know the endgame until the play's final scene (although more savvy audience members may have deduced it long before), it's that moment when the long con and the human heart intersect, providing a satisfying finish to a play that heralds the arrival to a major American stage of a highly talented and quick-witted young playwright.
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