Mable Kwan has some twisted family values.
Mable is the center of playwright Carla Ching’s “Fast Company,” which focuses on a family as gifted as “The Royal Tenenbaums,” director Wes Anderson’s 2001 film about a clan with supernatural powers. The Kwans’ genius is con artistry, and their tricks know no bounds. They break the grifters’ code — not to mention blood bonds — by running cons on each other. It’s brother against brother against sister with shifting loyalties and rampant mistrust.
That’s where matriarch Mable (Jeannie Lander) enters, drinking from her flask. A cold, hug-allergic mother the kids address by her first name, she has taught Francis (Brian Kim), H (Eric “Pogi” Sumangil) and Blue (Ming Montgomery) how to be ruthless and calculating. Maybe she taught them too well.
Mable arrives just as Blue, her youngest, is putting together the million-dollar heist of a Superman comic book that adds game theory to her grifting arsenal. Mom wants in on the action and will not be denied.
“Fast Company” had its zippy opening Saturday at the Guthrie Theater under the auspices of Theater Mu. The 90-minute one-act has spark and sizzle, even if it wobbles in the middle. That tentativeness is partly due to Ching’s playwriting — the script is tight at the beginning and end but meanders as the playwright seeks to give it more texture and twists.
The quibbles also have to do with opening night jitters as under-rehearsed cast members and tech crew settle into their respective roles.
Director Brian Balcom has teamed with economical projection designer Miko Simmons, creative lighting designer Karin Olson and efficient scenic designer Joel Sass to create suggestively liminal playing spaces for the action in “Fast Company,” with locales ranging from U.S. warehouses and offices to a Brazilian bar. Balcom’s reading makes the 2011 play more about mind games than about danger and edginess.
The director gets smooth performances from his cast, especially Lander as the matriarch of grift. Emotionally hard to read, she’s like an occult totem who also is occasionally pleased with her secrets — a sphinx that every now and then shows herself to be a Cheshire cat.
Montgomery’s Blue, who is understandably in therapy, is also something of a cipher. As the youngest, she benefits from what she has learned from her older siblings even as they underestimate her because of her youth. Blue is super smart without flaunting her wits, letting her siblings believe they have the upper hand.
Kim’s Francis thinks he’s a mastermind. But you can see his scheming on his face; he cannot hide his grift.
For my money, the best confidence man onstage is played by Sumangil. The pleasantly disposed actor radiates goodness and warmth, which means that people will trust him, even as he’s rifling through their emotions and wallets.
“Fast Company” embodies some questions around morality and ethics that have dogged humanity since people started walking upright. One is, does the end justify the means? It’s a show about confidence schemes and head games. But as Mable works her way through a family that she has taught too well to be cynical and cold, it turns into something that’s also about the human heart.