It's unfortunate, but the dark, dithering story of Ridiculous Fraud is set in New Orleans five years before Hurricane Katrina—thus ruling out the one plot device that could have brought this convolutedly unfunny play to a much faster and more satisfying conclusion.
Lamentable, too, is that playwright Beth Henley has delivered this oh so ostensibly dark comedy precisely a quarter century after she won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Crimes of the Heart, reminding us how long ago and far away that really was.
The two plays share a lot in terms of tone and 'tude: both are set in the Deep South, revolve around the strained and strange relationships among three siblings, and explore the seamy underside of societal propriety and family loyalty. But whereas one is strangely beguiling, the other is just plain exasperating.
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Ridiculous Fraud begins when dim bulb Lafcad Clay calls off his wedding to a rich, respected society girl—a union that his disgraced family had hoped would reverse its falling fortunes. Daddy is already in jail for some kind of bamboozlery. Smarmy oldest brother Andrew is running for statewide office with the support of his spoiled wife's corrupt father while making time with the guy's wife, who has cancer. Meanwhile, sexy middle brother Kap is making time with Andrew's wife and—it goes on and on, but we'll wrap up here—kooky Uncle Baites has swooned over a cute, one-legged con artist.
Crimes of the Heartgot a little weird, too. But whereas its dark absurdity eventually congealed into something approaching bittersweet truths, Ridiculous Fraud never even braids all its unsavory tangents into anything resembling a story line. While the script squeezes out occasional laughs, they don't have much to do with each other. And there isn't a second when you give a damn about what happens to any of the characters, unless it's the two hours and 20 minutes that you're wishing they would all die.
The whole mess ends up where it should—in a graveyard—but even there the play lingers, sending its characters wandering around, trying over and over to give them the words to sum things up while the audience waits and waits for something, anything, to bring down the curtain. Where is a hurricane when you need one?
RIDICULOUS FRAUD AT SOUTH COAST REPERTORY, 655 TOWN CENTER DR., COSTA MESA, (714) 708-5555; WWW.SCR.ORG. TUES., 7:30 P.M.; WED.-FRI., 8 P.M.; SAT., 2:30 & 8 P.M.; SUN., 7:30 P.M. THROUGH NOV. 19. $28-$60.