Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Fast Company is the story of Blue, H., Frankie and Mable, con artists who go to elaborate lengths to deceive one another. For one thing, there's big money at stake: the original first edition Superman comic book appraised at 1.5 million dollars. Blue has set up the deal, but H. is in deep debt to a gangster who's ready to break his legs if he doesn't pay up. Besides that, these four sharks have another reason to take shots at one anotherthey're family.
Minnesota theatergoers who saw Ching's work in 2016 when Theater Mu co-world premiered her play The Two Kids that Blow Shit Up will recognize her talent for crafting relationships between characters who are part tonic, part arsenic, with affection buried deeply below layers of debris. In Fast Company, Blue, the youngest of three siblings, learned the art of the con from the master, Mable Kwanwhom they occasionally call Mom. You wouldn't know it from her demeanorMable is about as maternal as a machete. She tries to keep Blue, as her only daughter, from getting into the game (as Mable states, "It's a shitty field for women"), which only fans the flames of Blue's desire to show Mable what she's made of. H. would probably stick with the rackets if he were good at it, but he keeps losing more money than he takes in, so he is ready to bailonce he scores big enough to get the goons he is indebted to off his tail. Francis has had it with a life that requires him to constantly look over his shoulder, and is trying to launch a new career in show business as an escape artist and magician.
Ching does a swell job of crafting the ins and outs of deals and double-crosses that veer back and forth among this criminal crew. None of them are particularly likeable, but all are intriguing and manage to hold interest. The dialogue is whip-smart, bouncing back and forth like a well-played ping pong match. It is loaded up with grifters' jargon that at first is a bit hard to follow, but soon enough begins to make sense, as much sense as their entire gimlet-eyed view of existence. One saving grace is that most of the harm being done is against one another, and each of them deserves what they get, though in the bigger universe it would be naïve to say that their con games are victimless crimes.
Director Brian Balcom has a masterful touch with dense scripts, rapid-paced banter, and fast-moving action, as evidenced by a string of successful outings at Gremlin (Samuel J. and K, Ideation, Don't Dress for Dinner among them) and other local theaters. Those skills keep Fast Company galloping along at a giddy pace, even when there is, at one juncture, a six-month gap in the action. He is able to depict a family whose members are ready to set the others adrift on a rubber raft in a sea of sharks, yet still create an aura of family ties that never completely vanish.
Balcom's job is made easier by the talents of his four cast members, each of whom appears completely at home in the skin of their character. Ming Montgomery is marvelous as Blue, too smart for her own good but with the self-confidence and chutzpah to run past any roadblocks that drop in her path. Her assertion that the game theory she is studying at her Ivy League college is superior to the old tropes is delivered with absolute authority. Montgomery commands the stage whenever she appears. Jeannie Lander is completely persuasive as steely Mable, never betraying an iota of sentimentality as she clings to her post atop the family hierarchy. She has no trouble telling her offspring that, just because she likes their father a little doesn't mean she has to like them.
Brian Kim is highly engaging as Francis, enthusiastic about his prospects to break away and make an honest living deceiving people as an escape artist. When he is dragged back into the con, both his resistance and the inner delight the old game stirs within him are on display. Eric "Pogi" Sumangil completes the quartet as a H. His performance taps into the humor written into this sad sack character, while also making H. somewhat pitiable, and in spite of some terrible choices he makes, he's the one who draws our sympathya little bit, anyway.
Tech elements are handled well in every aspect of this production, with Mike Simmons providing stylish projections that tell us where we are with each new scenedowntown L.A., Chinatown, Brazillike establishing shots in a movie. Joel Sass' set is sleek and spare, like the high-end hotel bars in which the Kwans and their associates do business.
The Kwans are a Chinese-American family, though there is scarcely a trace of their Chinese heritage on view in the conduct of their con games. Occasional references are made to China, and a few jokes are based on their nationality, such as a long string of terrible Asian accents Francis employs to conceal his identity on the phone. Beyond that, anyone going to see Fast Company expecting insights into the Asian-American experience, themes of acculturation, or re-connecting to one's roots will be disappointed. Hopefully, the sharply constructed plotting, wicked humor, and taut production will be more than sufficient compensation.
The play does touch upon the theme of familyidentifying the "crew," the team involved in a particular con, as a de facto family. In the case of the Kwans, the question of whether their biological connections or their affiliation as a crew make for the stronger family is worth pondering.
Ching wraps up the push-pull dynamic of these grifters with a sudden swoop into feel-good territory that doesn't completely ring true. Mable's big reveal seems a stretch in contrast with the behaviors that have preceded it. This is too bad, because up to that point, Fast Company keeps us leaning in, wanting to keep up with the scams and enjoying the bright, bouncy conversations. It's a bit disingenuous when all the venom and deceit so freely dished out suddenly become a balm for patching the cracks in the Kwan family. And not nearly as much fun.
In spite of the way its fast-burning fuse fizzles out just when it should trigger an explosion, Fast Company is a great deal of fun, tickling the intellect with the deviousness of its plotting, engaging us with its bright dialogue, and treating us to four top-drawer performances. The Kwans may be a gang of con artists, but Fast Company is a solid deal.
Fast Company, a production of Theater Mu, runs through November 24, 2019, at the Guthrie Theater's Dowling Studio, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $25.00 - $32.00. For information and tickets call 612-377-2224 or visit guthrietheater.org. For information on Theatre Mu go to theatermu.org
Playwright: Carla Ching; Director: Brian Balcom; Scenic Design: Joel Sass; Costume Design: Ash Kaun; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Sound Design: Montana Johnson; Projection Design: Mike Simmons; Properties Design: Abbee Warmboe; Assistant Lighting Design: Tony Stoeri; Magic Consultant: Tyler Erickson; Technical Director: Trevor Muller-Hegel; Stage Manager: Lisa Smith; Assistant Director: Audrey Park.
Cast: Brian Kim (Francis), Jeannie Lander (Mable), Ming Montgomery (Blue), Eric "Pogi" Sumangil (H).