The Fakus-A Noir
Centastage, Plaza Theatre
Boston Center for the Arts,
through October 6, 617-933-8600 or bostontheatrescene.com.
Joe Byers writes for the stage but also loves film. In a recent interview with Bay Windows, the 55 year old out playwright noted, “I watched a lot of movies when I was growing up. “ In particular the former Boston writer- who just moved back to his native Philadelphia after 24 years in the Hub- enjoyed the films of the 40’s and 50’s- many of them the darkly atmospheric ones known as film noir. “I certainly immersed in the films of that era. “ No surprise then that Byers has written what he calls “a homage” to those films in his new play The Fakus- A Noir, now in its world premiere with Centastage at the Boston Center for the Arts (through October 6).
Set in Atlantic City in September, 1957, The Fakus- A Noir focuses on a mysterious business triangle testing trust and relationships and involving religion and money. Byers has tried to tell his three-character story with the approach of 1950’s movies- “more presentational than representational,” he explained,”and stylized. I really love the language.” He especially admired how such a film “actually draws people in” and tried to do the same with his play. As for choosing Atlantic City as the setting, he said, “Jersey Shores was definitely the resort area for people from Philadelphia (like his own family).
While Byers- an Irish-American from a Catholic family but now a self-declared Quaker- based the play’s characters on people he knows, he also depended upon research. “The germ of the play came from researching confidence games,” he explained. “There was a long con (confidence game) where a con (confidence man) would be shacked up with the mark (the victim of the con).” Byers also credited such films as the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There as influences on his play.
The Fakus-A Noir is a kind of stylish con itself with the audience a mark enjoying its victimization. Ostensibly Mrs. Joseph Patrick Paul Costello, an elderly Irish Catholic woman looks in Atlantic City for two fellow believers to help her deliver $100,000 to a priest heading to the Congo to establish a missionizing school in memory of her daughter. She soon finds two such Catholics- strangers Leland and Harry, who strike up a conversation after Mass and become quick friends. They will receive $1000 each for their efforts but must initially put up $10,000 each (as part of the arrangement) until the delivery is completed. As the arrangements take more time, Leland invites Harry to share his hotel room, and the plot proverbially thickens. Byers gradually reveals the nature of the ‘fakus,’or personal devil, dogging each of the characters. The word ‘fakus’ clearly also calls to the fakery essential to cons.
Red flags and red herrings pop up everywhere, and theatergoers should enjoy Byer’s vivid 50’s style dialogue. They should also be intrigued by the very suggestive banter between the two new chums and a strikingly erotic face-off between Leland and Harry as they play cards, swim and share other experiences.
Of course questions do arise. Is Mrs. Costello a virtuous Catholic? Is Leland actually the son-in-law of a Jewish clothing store entrepreneur and Harry a struggling businessman? Are they genuinely beleaguered husbands looking for an escape from their respective rocky marriages? Is the friendship between Leland and Harry more than platonic? Finally, who is conning whom? Byer’s clever play will keep audiences guessing. The ambiguities-even where there may seem to be holes in the story- are all to the point of noir itself and the 50’s film-resembling approach of the play.
Director Joe Antoun briskly paces the alternating connections and conflicts of the characters. Paul Melendy, tall, muscular and athletic, makes Leland properly charismatic and graceful. His hotel chair exercise routines add to Leland’s understated cockiness. Craig Mathers, shorter and stockier, has Harry’s Everyman world-weariness and vulnerability. Melendy and Mathers provide convincing strong chemistry as new friends, especially as they explore more intimate frontiers. Kudos as well to Richelle Devereaux- Murray’s period costumes, John Cuff’s smartly muted lighting and rich silhouettes and Rick Brenner’s evocative sound design-which includes fitting jazz stretches and such 50’s themes as the title one from “The Bad and the Beautiful.” Ron DeMarco’s atmospheric sets are as easily changed as the characters’ fortunes.