In “Fast Company,” the misdirection arrives in various forms. There’s the legerdemain of Francis (Tyler Simahk), who is fond of pickpocketing packs of cigarettes and then making them seem to appear out of thin air. And there’s the multiple plot feints of playwright Carla Ching, who in telling the story of a family of con artists seeks to pull a few clever tricks on the audience.
The tautly drawn four-hander is making its New England premiere at Lyric Stage Company of Boston, in a production that director M. Bevin O’Gara unspools at a quick pace and gamely infuses with a sense of intrigue.
Ching aims to build tension in an escalating series of cons and double-crosses that are meant to leave audiences guessing at what to believe, as do the characters. But the less compelling tension is that between a would-be character study and the genre conventions and tics that undermine it.
Amid all the talk here of roping marks, boosting scores, avoiding the can, and getting pinched — plus a glossary of established cons, from the Pig in a Poke to the Spanish Prisoner — is a story about family dysfunction and the limits of loyalty. We see four family members alternately supporting and scheming against each other, and bits of backstory that are meant to throw light on these relationships.
Yet the densely packed plot is never as gripping or revelatory as others we’re already well familiar with from television, film, and the stage (yes, it is a minor misstep to remind us of David Mamet’s excellent “The Spanish Prisoner” not once but twice), and the actors sometimes strain to burrow convincingly into these characters.
Simahk does impress as Francis, a likable one-time con man whose conscience has led him to pursue a different sort of exploitation, as a David Blaine-like illusionist staging showy public endurance tests for “Dateline.” In his professional stage debut, Michael Hisamoto does well as the more slippery and ineffective H.
Tightly wound and defensive, Blue (Theresa Nguyen) is a chip off the old block of her adoptive mother, Mabel (Lin-Ann Ching Kocar), though her failure in a cruel childhood test of her grifting facility has left her the odd one out in the family business. (“Any field is a [expletive] field for women!” Blue declares, in the play’s best line.) Yet she’s an innovator, seeking to infuse hoary old cons with elements of game theory she’s picked up in college.
So when the world’s most valuable comic book goes missing, mucking up “the job of the decade,” the old Pig in a Poke won’t suffice. Blue wants to spring a “psychological game.”
There’s some fun in watching each of these four play their roles in the developing scheme, sometimes outmaneuvering the others and sometimes being taken for a chump. Garrett Herzig’s between-scene projections and Arshan Gailus’s jazzy, crackling original music reinforce the sense of a fast-moving caper film. In the play’s most successful sleight of hand, pieces of scenes are sometimes replayed as characters scan their memories for missed details or play out the outcomes of different strategies. This is achieved with a high level of craft.
But credibility strains when it’s time for the traps to be sprung and secrets to be shared. A showpiece deception is weirdly and graphically off-tone, causing squeamish groans in the audience. Cued by the family-drama cliché of an “Ah ha!” revelation, the conclusion feels more like a movie’s sequel pivot than a plausible course-correction for this group. A sense of deepened character insight is one illusion that just isn’t pulled off.
Written by Carla Ching. Directed by M. Bevin O’Gara. At Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon St., through March 27. Tickets: $31-$65, 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com