By Pat Launer
Are you up for a dramatic adventure? Ready to learn ‘the art of the con?’ Then, swing on down to the Lafayette Hotel and become part of “The Grift.”
It’s another installment of the La Jolla Playhouse’s Without Walls (WoW) series, produced, as was 2013’s highly successful, three-time extended “Accomplice: San Diego,” by Diabolical Muse Productions. Like that show, this world premiere is an intricately planned and plotted immersive theater experience, conceived, written and directed by Tom Salomon.
The lovingly restored 1940s San Diego landmark hotel is the scene of con and counter-con (I guess you could call this a comic Con). Here’s how it goes.
In a group of about 50, we head to the Mississippi Ballroom to get the backstory, told on video by Ben (Jim Chovick) from his deathbed, with supplemental info provided by our stone-faced guide and Narrator (Matt Thompson).
It seems that Ben was conceived (in a bathroom), born (in the pool) and raised in the Hotel, the secret love-child of Bob Hope and Lana Turner (both movie stars were actually guests of the Lafayette, but there’s no evidence of any powder-room tryst, or its long-lived clandestine outcome).
More or less abandoned by his parents (though regular checks did arrive for his support), Ben was reared by the friendly hotel staff.
At age 12, he witnessed a slick con and, captivated by the cunning, he cornered the perpetrator and promised not to expose him, if the guy would teach him all about grifting. Ben spent the rest of his life as a huckster, conning the hotel clientele, though being a man of principle, he gave back all his ill-gotten acquisitions. To him, it was just a game.
But Ben has one unsettled score: Chicago Joe, a swindling bully whom he exhorts us, his invited guests, to “bring down” over the course of our visit, in a con called “The Fare-Thee Well.” To build up to this ‘long con,’ we need to master a few ‘short cons.’
So, we’re divided into small groups of about 10; we’re given boxes and keys, maps and clues that take us to various areas of the hotel (walking and stair-climbing involved), where we meet up with the descendants of the staffers who raised Ben and were bilked out of their retirement savings by the dastardly Chicago Joe: the chambermaid’s daughter (Yvette Angulo), the bartender’s grandson (Lucas Coleman), the nanny’s great-granddaughter (Dana Lau), the lifeguard’s grandson (Scott Nickley) and the bellhop’s piano-playing grandson (Cris O’Bryon). At the end, just before we re-convene as a large group for a fast-paced art auction, we’ll come face-to-face with Ben’s nemesis, Chicago Joe (aptly intimidating Bernard X. Kopsho).
Along the way, we’ll be given multiple ‘intelligence tests’ (hope that members of your group know a bit about chess and music), many of which are both tricky and clever, and we’ll participate in common cons like the “High-Yield Investment Scheme” and the “Pig in a Poke.” We’ll even get a drink and some food. And, if we’re effective as a team, we’ll collaborate on moving from one location to the next (near the pool, in a 4th floor suite, and sequestered in the fascinating Archives, repository of historic hotel items such as a tube radio, early telephone and old phonograph).
It’s all very comprehensive and elaborate. Hats off to Salomon for his wild imagination and meticulous attention to detail (did we really need those photos in each box? They appeared to be charming red herrings). Some of it gets a little convoluted. But hang in; it’s tons of fun — if you get into the act. The teamwork is a good part of the entertainment.
For this kind of theater to work, the performers have to be light on their feet, interacting and improvising with their guests (that is, us, the audience). They’re all quite adept, though a few seem a bit more antic and manic than necessary. They do a terrific job of guiding us through the tasks and problem-solving (providing helpful cues when needed).
If you let go and get involved, you’ll have a unique, amusing, brain-teasing time. But beware. You might be so taken with all the conning schemes you learn, you’ll be itching to go home and get into the grifting game yourself.
- “The Grift,” a site-specific, interactive show, runs through February 22 at the Lafayette Hotel, 2223 El Cajon Blvd. in University Heights
- Performances are 8 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 7 p.m. Friday, 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Saturday, and 3 p.m., 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Sunday
- Tickets ($35-$45) are available at 858-550-1010 or online at lajollaplayhouse.org
- Running time: 1 hr. 45 min.
Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at www.patteproductions.com.
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