The Fakus -- A Noir
"The Fakus," a new play by Joe Byers being debuted by Centastage at the Boston Center for the Arts, is a twisty, complex study in devotion and deception wrapped around a convoluted con job. The play constantly keeps its audience guessing: Just who is conning whom?
Two well-dressed men meet on the Jersey City boardwalk after church services one morning. One is Leland (Paul Melendy), a dapper fellow ho ha married into a successful business, but whose marriage is on the verge of collapse. The other is Harry (Craig Mathers), a slightly rumpled sort who owns a failing factory. There’s a sense of connivance in the air from the start, as the men talk about their backgrounds and skirt around issues of money: Harry asks for change for a twenty; Leland has nothing smaller than that, himself, and he’s carrying a wad of bills in his fat wallet. Someone is ripe for a plucking, and it seems to be Leland, but can we really be sure?
Then things get complicated: Enter Mrs. Costello (Bobbie Steinbach), a seemingly wealthy and definitely eccentric woman who is determined to give away a fortune to a priest and African missionary. Mrs. Costello claims to have visions of the Virgin Mary instructing her to make her gift in time to beat the torrential rainy season, so that the "pagan babies" will have someplace to live that is safe, dry, and infused with piety. Mrs. Costello needs help in getting a bag full of cash to the priest before he sets sail; she offers Leland and Harry the job, promising them each a $1,000 commission. But here’s the catch: Not sure that she can trust the men, Mrs. Costello demands a $10,000 bond.
It sounds rather like those email scams that promise a hefty bonus to anyone naïve and greedy enough to hand over their bank account information to besieged foreigners trying to get their family fortunes out of their homelands and into American banks. But the play is set in 1957, when scams of this nature were less well known (and, we might believe as we wax nostalgic for the simplicity of earlier times, people were less cynical). Besides, as Mrs. Costello points out, the men are going to have a satchel full of her money; she has their bond, but they have a fortune ten times greater, should they choose to abscond with it.
Leland can get his hands on the money, but not for another week; this means that he and Harry will be rooming together, and getting to know one another better, for a while. Drinking, cards, macho challenges... it’s all part and parcel for an extended boys’ night out, but as the two become more familiar with each other’s heartaches and discontents, a deeper friendship starts to blossom. If Mrs. Costello is playing them, will they figure it out together and avoid disaster? If one of the two men is a con man, will he forsake his big score out of friendship? Or is love one more long con to be chosen from an array of classic swindles?
Set designer Ron DeMarco literally sets the stage for this period piece, using simple props in a striking manner. The boardwalk itself needs only some wooden planks, a cleverly portable lamppost, and a classic park bench; a nearby restaurant is sketched in with a table, chairs, and a few teacups, all against a backdrop suggesting movie posters and neon signs. Sound designer Rick Brenner provides noirish music and, where needed, the whoosh and racket of a raging storm.
Director Joe Antoun keeps a steady hand on the material, though with a sense of fun: The actors speak in the rapid clip of a 1940s film. The handsome wardrobe in which Richelle Devereaux-Murray dresses the cast is beautiful in living color, but would look great in black and white.
It all comes back to what’s on the page, of course, and the play presents a mix of the vintage and the modern. Byers drops clues and hints throughout his script, but the constant theme of overt religiosity is his most consistently deployed red flag. Just who is most devout among these three somewhat shady characters? In one twist, that religious faith, though exaggerated, seemingly turns out to be genuine -- a hint of a different sort, suggesting that love might, after all, surmount greed and gamesmanship.
"The Fakus -- A Noir" continues through October 6 at the Boston Center for the Arts. Performances: Thursday, Oct. 5: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday Oct. 5 and 6: 8:00 p.m. For tickets and more information, please visit http://www.centastage.org