The Sting Entertains
I wish I could report the Maverick Theater's staged version of the iconic 1973 film The Sting is one giant, two-hour swindle of your hard-earned pay, if only because it would be an apropos coda to the tale of con men and the people who con them. But, alas, it's only the audience who gets off clean. As entertainments go, this is a finely executed, well-acted homage to the film that did for grifters in 1930s Chicago what the Godfather series did for mafiosos in 1940s New York: elevating criminals to authentic anti-hero status, making them look damn dapper in the process.
Since this production is based on David Ward's screenplay, it's far more screen than stage, with lots of short scenes and a dizzying number of scene locales. Director Brian Newell utilizes both Maverick performing spaces, placing the first act in the theater's traditional 50-seat black-box theater and the second in its more cabaret-style space. With the number of flats that whistle across the space in the first act, changing the scene from brothel to train car to bar to dingy apartment room, and then all over again, it's a wonder someone's paws aren't crushed every night. But though the scenery changes do get a bit clunky from time to time, the breakneck speed at which they're executed provides external energy to a show that, since it's based on a screenplay, lacks some inner dramatic fire. Undeveloped—and far too many—characters; an enjoyable, if hole-riddled plot; and an emphasis on style over substance works on film, but not so much onstage.
But rather than tweak the material to make it more theatrical (put that guy in the spotlight; combine scenes to avoid scene changes), Newell plays it as it is: a screenplay brought to the stage. Die-hard fans of the film shouldn't be disappointed, since it's nearly pitch-perfect in terms of scenic details and costuming; but the real fans of this show might be those who have never seen the film or did so years ago and have forgotten some of the more surprising plot twists.
Set in 1936 Chicago, the story follows low-level con man Hooker (Michael Keeney), who manages to infuriate both the local cops and the ruthless Lonnegan (Brian Kojac), a high-rolling banker from New York City who supplements his legal thievery through more dubious means. On the lam, Hooker is directed by his mentor, Luther (Larry Creagan), to meet Gondorff (Frank Tryon), a hard-drinking expert on the long con. The two concoct an elaborate sting operation to get back at Lonnegan, who ordered Hooker's friend murdered.
Along the way, we get local flatfoots, federal agents, femme fatales, an assortment of grifters and cheats and toughs, and more awesome hats than Lidsville. Keeney and Tryon are finely cast in the roles that Paul Newman and Robert Redford immortalized; they are both cocky, if fragile at times, and display an earnest sense of connection. (Why two career criminals take such an immediate liking to each other is just one of those potholes in the story alluded to earlier. . . .) Kojac is equally effective as their foil, Lonnegan. His arrogance and thirst for revenge at any cost makes him very easy to root against. Remember, everyone in this story is equally criminal; some are just more criminal than others.
A couple of hiccups do affect the 14-person ensemble cast, which is to be expected with so many people running around onstage, but the core, comprised of the accomplices Gondorff elicits in his scheme, is solid. If there's one flaw in the production, it's a matter of tone. Things are almost too friendly among the co-conspirators. These are all liars and thieves, threatened with the very real possibility of death or imprisonment if one detail in the plan goes awry, but there's very little grit or sense of peril to the proceedings. And just as the criminals seem too collegial, the cops, with the exception of Bill Carson's Lieutenant Snyder, aren't menacing enough. That works against the rising action of the second act; however, the sensational plot twists are intriguing enough to command attention.
There's not a great deal of depth to the screenplay turned play. Masculine competition, pride and honor are lightly probed, but this is really just an interesting story in which the good guys—even if they're really bad guys, only less bad than the really bad guys—are faced with seemingly impossible odds and forced to try to pull off a huge gambit. It's not groundbreaking, revelatory theater. But it's a load of fun and a show that succeeds best by not trying to be anything other than what it is: a meticulously rendered, briskly paced slice of American cinema transfused into three-dimensional theater. Newell, who directs and did the set, light and sound design, has been doing this staged-cinema deal for a long time, with everything from The Manchurian Candidate to Santa Claus Conquers the Martians thrown into the mix. This may be his most faithful reincarnation to date.
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