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Con Ed

One con man teaches another the sleazy ropes in Playhouse Square's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

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D. B. Bonds (left) and Tom Hewitt toast their own deviousness in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
  • D. B. Bonds (left) and Tom Hewitt toast their own deviousness in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

Anyone who has seen The Sting or has witnessed companies like Halliburton bleeding the U.S. treasury during the war is familiar with the "long con." It's a confidence game in which the mark (be it a person or a country) is maneuvered into giving the con artist a lot more money than was ever intended.

Of course, the reason these scams work is that the people perpetrating the ruse are so good at winning the trust of their dupe, their skulduggery is never suspected. A case in point: Not only is Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the Palace Theatre a play about a long con; it is one itself. Slickly produced and winningly performed, the production almost fakes us into believing we're watching an above-average musical, when in fact it is a rather desperate collection of fairly obvious shtick.

Set on the French Riviera and based on the tepidly amusing 1988 movie starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin, Scoundrels follows urbane continental con man Lawrence and Freddy, an apparently oafish American grifter who meets Lawrence on a train. The two sense a common bond -- namely, the love of cadging money out of rich and shallow women -- and join forces. Lawrence even agrees to tutor Freddy. But eventually they challenge each other to a con-game duel, in which the loser must leave the Riviera to ply his trade in a less lucrative venue.

It's a cad-a-thon! Unfortunately, the material -- as written by Jeffrey Lane (book) and David Yazbek (music and lyrics) -- dawdles insufferably during the first act before it gets around to the mano-a-mano stuff. A long digression involves Lawrence's pursuit of - and eventual escape from - Jolene, an over-the-top Oklahoma diva. She's played without an ounce of subtlety by Jenifer Foote, an actress whose consonant-deprived first name may be her sole claim to distinction. The sequence features a pointless song and dance, and a long, ridiculously broad follow-up scene, in which Freddy poses as Lawrence's mentally defective brother Ruprecht to scare off the marriage-minded Jolene.

Also gumming up the works is a lame romance between Andre (the local sheriff and Lawrence's right-hand man) and the rich Muriel Eubanks, played by Hollis Resnik. As Andre, Drew McVety has few comic gifts and, amazingly, can't even conjure up a laughable French accent. As a result, his scenes with Resnik are as light and whimsical as a lead croissant. However, Resnik does score well in her featured number, "What Was a Woman to Do?" -- in which she and other women (including a contributor from the audience) lament their weakness for lotharios like Lawrence.

It's too bad the show stumbles out of the gate, since both Lane and Yazbek come up with a number of witty lines and sharp takes. Relaxing in his luxurious, chandelier-lit home, Lawrence notes, "Breeding is important, but lighting is everything." And in the raucous song "Great Big Stuff," Freddy imagines his wealthy future as made up of certain components: "Cash to keep me idle/Chicks to keep me vital/Pills to keep me happy/Even when I'm suicidal."

Happily, once Freddy and Lawrence train their sights on American soap heiress Christine Colgate -- the object of their challenge bet -- the production builds some steam. Lawrence is just about to lay his smooth line on the unsuspecting Colgate when Freddy rolls in, literally -- posing as a wheelchair-bound, paraplegic American soldier. While this gambit has an unintended cringe factor (given the current stream of injured soldiers coming back from the Middle East), it works within the show's context.

Tom Hewitt is suitably oleaginous as Lawrence, using his silver-fox good looks and rich baritone voice to win over his distaff prey. He comes off like a sly Dean Martin straight man, juxtaposed with the Jerry Lewis-like antics of D.B. Bonds' Freddy, who looks like a second cousin of John Ritter. He's affable, gangly, and equal to all the physical demands of his role -- which requires him to pump his pelvis more than Ron Jeremy on a Viagra bender. They're abetted by Laura Marie Duncan, who, as Christine, makes a very convincing mistaken millionaire. But since this is a con game, nothing is what it seems, and the show builds to a satisfying, delightfully larcenous conclusion.

Directed by Jack O'Brien and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell, Scoundrels is a flashy, paper-thin theatrical con you don't mind falling for -- since its energy and zest eagerly overwhelm more rational concerns. And scenic designer David Rockwell's set, complete with a rotating turntable and sparkly backdrops, maintains the feel of tinselly unreality. In short, it's a pleasant if not perfect diversion for a summer evening.

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