The Rag, the Spanish Prisoner, the Pig-in-a-Poke, the Badger Game, and the Glim Dropper are just five of the games that H, Blue, and Francis learned at their mother Mable’s knee—which will give you an idea of just what kind of family the three siblings grew up in in Carla Ching’s exhilarating World Premiere comedy Fast Company, the latest from South Coast Repertory.

Emily Kuroda, Jackie Chung, Lawrence Kao and Nelson Lee in South Coast Repertory's 2013 world premiere of FAST COMPANY by Carla Ching. Not only are Mable and her spawn con artists par excellence, these New York City grifters are not above conning each other if the price is right, a fact to which Fast Company cues us in from the get-go.

H has brought over for his sister Blue’s perusal a near perfect replica of Action Comics #1, Superman’s first appearance “in the comic sphere,” a fake worth only about $8.16 plus tax, but so indistinguishable from the real thing (which Blue happens to have pilfered) that a collector might easily fork over a million and a half thinking it a mint edition of the most valuable comic book in comic book history, that is if Blue doesn’t blow the switch.

Nelson Lee and Jackie Chung in South Coast Repertory's 2013 world premiere of FAST COMPANY by Carla Ching. And so brother and sister give it a trial run, with H pretending to be the buyer, giving the fake comic a professional look-see and agreeing to the sale. Blue then executes “The Swap,” and before you know it, “buyer” H has proven himself the ideal mark, allowing Blue to pocket $1.5 million and abscond with the honest-to-goodness original, or at least that’s what will happen if sis doesn’t screw things up when meeting with the real prospective buyer.

What we have here is classic Pig-In-A-Poke, or it would be if not for one hitch. When Blue goes to show the real mark the actual original Action Comics #1, it’s nowhere to be found, H having proven to his sister the truth behind the adage that “There’s no honor among thieves,” even if related by blood.

All of which leaves Blue in a bit of a pickle and unable to return the original to the office of movie star Jason Manheim, from whence she’s filched it with the intention of having it back in its high-security frame by the time Manheim gets back from the Hollywood Oscars.

And so Blue seeks out con man-turned-card illusionist younger brother Francis, who agrees to help her find the now MIA H on two conditions: that Blue find “another angle” in life and that she agree not to do anything to get back at her older brother.

Jackie Chung, Lawrence Kao and Emily Kuroda in South Coast Repertory's 2013 world premiere of FAST COMPANY by Carla Ching. Even working together, however, Blue and Francis won’t be enough to pull this off, insists the latter. They’re going to need an expert planner to find the right angle to rope in H, and when it comes to cons, there’s only one person who can not only “play every position” but who knows H like the back of her hand, and that’s Mable, who taught H, Blue, and Francis everything they know.

This is why, even though the mere mention of “that woman” makes Blue want to take to drink, she and Francis find themselves reunited with Mommy Dearest in their plan to out-con a con who just happens to be their own brother.

Given this prelude to one surprise twist after another, it should come as no surprise that playwright Ching turns out to be a big The Grifters fan, her latest play focusing as much on family dynamics as on family swindles. H, Blue, and Francis each seem to be in his or her own stage of “recovery” from Mable’s brand of parenting, a prime example of which was depositing ten-year-old Blue on Rockaway Beach with “no money, no map, and the words ‘Find your way home.’”

Still, family is family, no matter how dysfunctional, and one of the best things about Fast Company is how very authentic are the ties that bind sibling to sibling and offspring to mother, and never more so than when comedy gets a dose of dramatic reality thrown in in the play’s surprisingly moving finale.

Have I mentioned that Mable, H, Blue, and Francis are Chinese-American?

I haven’t, and deliberately so, since Fast Company is that rarity, an “Asian-American play” whose characters truly “just happen to be Asian.” Yes, playwright Ching throws in an occasional reference to her characters’ Chinese heritage, but Fast Company is about an American family and not a Chinese-American family.

Jackie Chung, Emily Kuroda, Lawrence Kao and Nelson Lee in South Coast Repertory's 2013 world premiere of FAST COMPANY by Carla Ching. This is good news indeed for Emily Kuroda (Mable), Nelson Lee (H), Jackie Chung (Blue), and Lawrence Kao (Francis), each of them terrific in the kind of roles they’d be playing in mainstream plays were casting directors more inclined to think outside the box. (The foursome would make a great Nat, Howie, Becca, and Jason in Rabbit Hole, to name just one example.) It’s a particular pleasure seeing East-West Players treasure Kuroda sinking her teeth into brash, ballsy Mable.

Lawrence Kao and Nelson Lee in South Coast Repertory's 2013 world premiere of FAST COMPANY by Carla Ching. Director Bart DeLorenzo keeps the pace fast and the tone just right, with Jason H. Thompson’s colorful animated projections linking scenes and giving Fast Company an excitingly cinematic quality as do John Ballinger’s original music and soundscape. Scenic designer Keith Mitchell’s imaginative, stylish set morphs from Blue’s apartment to hotel room to meat locker to Vegas to Atlantic City to Rio. Tom Ontiveros gets top marks for his lighting design as does Ann Closs-Farley for costumes that suit each character to a T.

Jennifer Ellen Butler is stage manager, Joshua Marchesi production manager, and Kelly L. Miller dramaturg.

Though Mable and her clan may not stick in your memory the way last month’s Lomans did in SCR’s alternatively-cast revival of Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Saleman, Carla Ching’s family of grifters make Fast Company a refreshing change of pace for theatergoers in search of entertainment more than a bit out of the ordinary.

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
October 16, 2013
Photos: Debora Robinson/SCR

Tags: , ,

Comments are closed.