by Loren Noveck · March 19, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #62 Loren Noveck comments on Fast Company at Ensemble Studio Theatre
You might say that the Kwan family perfectly illustrates an immigrant paradigm: parents work hard to establish a business, but when it comes time to pass it on, one son--the “good” son--has different dreams for himself, the other son is a ne’er-do-well who despite his talents constantly fails to live up to his parents’ expectations, and the daughter, no matter how hard she tries or how impressive she becomes, isn’t seen as an equal or a legitimate heir.
On the other hand, you might note that the Kwan family business isn’t exactly what you might expect--not a restaurant or an accounting firm or a clothing store. No, Mable Kwan, matriarch, is a top-level con artist; a handed-down piece of family wisdom from Mable is something like “Always carry disappear money.” And she’s trained her children well to follow in her footsteps. (Think Ocean’s Eleven plus healthy helpings of both dysfunctional family drama and high-level game theory.) So well, in fact, that once the wheels of Carla Ching’s deliciously clever Fast Company really start turning, the odds are rarely better than 50/50 that anything out of the mouths of any of them bears more than a passing resemblance to the truth. Which makes for utterly engaging theater, with the audience always serving as the perfect mark--as long as all the balls stay in the air. The whole thing moves lightning fast and delivers dizzying fun, adding to smart writing an even smarter pairing with director Robert Ross Parker, who adds his usual dose of bravura action-movie style, and stylish, minimalist set and lighting designs with just the right amount of slickness (both by Nick Francone).
The play is most intriguing when it uses the specific details and circumstances of this twisted grifters’ world to work out the perfectly ordinary conflicts that exist in every family: sibling jealousy; the inability to satisfy a parent’s ambitions; growing up to be disappointed in one’s parents; watching a treasured family business become obsolete in the face of new technology (in this case, the fact that all the classic old cons are described in detail on Wikipedia). True, having set up the unreliability of the emotional cards these people are dealing in scene after scene, the play, not surprisingly, can’t really offer heartfelt emotional payoffs. But since it’s often hard to tell whether even those deeper family feelings are just another level of con, that lack of resonance doesn’t undercut the play’s effectiveness; as the Kwans will be the first to tell you, feelings have no place on the job, anyway.
Mable Kwan’s children (son, stepson, and stepdaughter) have taken divergent paths. Francis has walked away from a life of crime, turning his sleight-of-hand and persuasion skills to the service of magic/endurance stunts: sort of a cross between David Blaine and Harry Houdini, but without forgetting his close-up card and pickpocketing tricks (and the show has a magic consultant, Ruy Iskandar, on staff making sure he gets the details right). Blue is trying to have it both ways--she’s in college, studying economics, but also running a big score on the side: “borrowing” an extremely rare comic book from a movie-star acquaintance, which she’ll use to bait-and-switch an unsuspecting buyer. After showing the buyer the real thing, she’ll sell him a fake, replace the original, and walk away with a cool million or more. But she’s made the critical mistake of bringing in her other, unreliable brother, H, a guy whose gambling problem is big enough to tempt him into a double-cross, and H quickly betrays his sister and the rest of their crew to go on the run with the comic. Needing to get the original back before she’s busted, Blue has only one place to turn: Francis, and, at his urging, the last person she wants to bring in, Mable.
The actors playing the three siblings (Stephanie Hsu as Blue, Christopher Larkin as Francis, and Moses Villarama as H) make the sibling relationships very believable: that mix of antagonism, need, and affection, however reluctant. Their biggest bonding moment is over exactly how their mother screwed them up--and Mia Katigbak plays Mable with hard-boiled edge, world-weary wisdom, and fiendish competitiveness: someone her children both fear and hero-worship.
But once Francis, Mable, and Blue join forces to set up a trap for H, you’ve got a team of con artists all conning one another, and it becomes impossible to tell what’s going to happen next--or who’s really on whose side. Ching and Parker keep us constantly aware of the vulnerabilities of the ensemble; everyone here is playing for very high stakes on two levels at once; their family and their lives are on the line. A disclosure might be real, or it might be a ploy; Blue might genuinely be feeling fear for her brother, or she might be playing his sympathies. When Mable tells H that his sister says she’s dead to him, is she laying bare emotional truth, or manipulating...or is there really no difference between the two?
Sometimes, I felt like Ching couldn’t quite decide whether to keep the mirrored surface--the space of no difference between emotion and manipulation--as the play’s only level, or wanted to actually crack through that surface to something rawer, less polished. And in its ending, the piece seems almost to try to split the difference between the two, in a way that felt a little forced. But the journey there is such a good time, it hardly matters.