Two men who’d seen each other at morning Mass strike up a conversation and, almost immediately, a friendship. Just as they’re about to go off to breakfast, they’re overtaken by an eccentric elderly Catholic lady with a sprained ankle who’s looking for two honest men to help her establish a school “for the pagan babies in Africa.” That’s the setup of Joe Byers’s windy but entertaining “The Fakus: A Noir,” which is getting its debut production from Centastage at the Boston Center for the Arts. It’s clear that we’re seeing a con game unfold. The question is, who’s conning who?
The place is Atlantic City, late September 1957, along a deserted boardwalk. Harry Galvin (Craig Mathers) sells aluminum in a town downriver from Pittsburgh. Leland Novak (Paul Melendy) is a bookkeeper for a high-end clothing store outside Baltimore. Each, we’re told, has come to Atlantic City to clear his head. Mrs. Joseph Patrick Paul Costello (Bobbie Steinbach) is the mystic with the money — she’s driven by visions of the Virgin Mary. Her proposal is that, for $1,000 each, Harry and Leland will hop on the bus to New York and deliver a satchel containing $100,000 to a bishop who’s about to sail for Africa. She feels she can trust them to do this because they’ve already returned to her the valuable rosary that she’d conveniently dropped on the boardwalk.
All the same, she wants them to put up, as bond, $10,000 apiece, in cash. And that’s where “The Fakus” starts to creak. Harry and Leland can’t get the money right away, so they wind up spending a week in Leland’s hotel room baring their souls and bodies to each other while they wait. The fact that one has to put up the bond for both because the other is broke might be a clue as to which one is in league with Mrs. Costello. But there’s no plausibility — and not much suspense — in the game of “trust” that Mrs. Costello proposes before the men go off, and in the end possession of the satchel (now filled with $120,000) turns on nothing cleverer than a punch to the solar plexus.
There’s no lack of ingenuity in Ron DeMarco’s set, however. He conjures the boardwalk out of signage for the Steel Pier and the High-Diving Horse and a General Motors exhibit; he fashions the Sea Horse cafe with a street lamp, a planter, and a wrought-iron table and chairs. And then it all folds back and a bed slides forward to create Leland’s hotel room.
The actors, too, are fun to watch. Steinbach, in mink and diamonds, and with a handbag that could do serious damage, is way over the top, but that’s how she keeps you guessing as to the authenticity of Mrs. Costello’s visions. Mathers, in his mustache and business suit, makes a regular guy of Harry: open, affable, the kind of man another man can talk to. Melendy, as the young, slick Leland, has the hardest part; in retrospect, Leland’s actions don’t add up, but Melendy makes them seem to. Centastage artistic director Joe Antoun turns it all into a nifty shell game, moving the action along so quickly that you don’t have time to think.
“The Fakus” ends on a gushy note, and at two hours and 15 minutes, the play is 15 minutes too long. But the audience isn’t being conned. As entertainment goes, you get your money’s worth.