In the program for "Fast Company," a play by Carla Ching now having its world premiere at South Coast Repertory, the verb "grift" is helpfully defined: "To obtain goods or money illegally by use of skill rather than violence."
Many of you are no doubt already familiar with this term from the captivating 1990 Stephen Frears movie "The Grifters," which is clearly an inspiration for Ching's wily drama about an Asian American family of con artists, who are as ruthless with one another as they are with their marks. (Mark: "the intended victim of a con. Also known as a sucker, chump or patsy.")
Mable (Emily Kuroda), the matriarch of this conniving crew, may not dabble in the kind of Oedipal seduction that Anjelica Huston's character resorted to in "The Grifters," but she's just as formidable. To toughen up her children when they were still in grade school, she left them without subway fare in far-flung spots in New York City and challenged them to find their way back to their Queens home.
Blue (Jackie Chung) is still furious with her mother for this cruel test. She also can't get over the humiliation that it took her two days while her brothers managed to return in just a few hours.
Blue, a math whiz studying at Brown, has much to prove. University is a cover for her real ambition: making big time money in the grifter game. She teams up with her brother H (Nelson Lee) on a comic book caper involving a first edition of Action Comics # 1 but gets double-crossed when H absconds with the million-dollar-plus original, leaving her not just in a desperate situation but also once again on the bottom of the family hierarchy.
To retrieve this costly collector's item in which Superman makes his comic book debut, Blue forges an alliance with her brother Francis (Lawrence Kao). A master of legerdemain, pick-pocketing and Houdiniesque escapes, Francis calls in the big guns, their mother, who turns the whole affair into a devilishly tricky game of one-upmanship, in which no bond is sacred and Blue's Ivy League game theory is set against old-fashioned street smarts.
The plot is quick and clever, and Bart DeLorenzo's fleet staging has a captivating bounce that's enlivened by Jason H. Thompson's sprightly projections. But the personal dimension of this family saga gets lost in the shuffle of foxy maneuvers.
Ching, a Los Angeles native, is determined to stay one step ahead of her audience. She succeeds but at a cost: The outcome of the game is more compelling than the relationships of the players.
The two most original characters in "Fast Company," Francis and Mable (entertainingly brought to life by Kao and Kuroda), are colorful in a fabulist fashion. Blue, the protagonist, is a much vaguer figure, defined mostly by her gift for numbers and the long-standing chip on her shoulder for not being as cunning as her brothers. H's identity is a handsome blur, less a fully developed character than a catalyst for Ching's labyrinthine tale.
The ending of "Fast Company" is as labored as the play's setup, but between these points the action moves with impressive speed. It's a fun ride, though without much emotional weight, the amusement vanishes quickly from memory.
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. (Check schedule for exceptions.) Ends Oct. 27.
Contact: (714) 708-5555 or http://www.scr.org
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
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