Long before we all found our email inboxes crammed with tantalizing news of fortunes nesting in Nigerian banks, needing only the simplest of responses before all that money could be ours, nefarious types preyed on the gullible in every imaginable way. Con artistry may not be the oldest profession, but pretty close.
"Hoax," the latest venture from magician Brian M. Kehoe and playwright Annelise Montone, seeks to conjure up the history of the con and expose its secrets.
Kehoe performs as Maxwell Fink, a character introduced last fall in "Planchette," a play-with-magic written by Montone about the Ouija board and spiritualism presented at the Carroll Mansion. Fink was described then as a professor at the University of Transylvania fired for "forward thinking."
In "Hoax," Fink and a sidekick, Sarah Swanson (played by Montone), are said to be "reformed and chastened criminals," willing to impart their inside knowledge so "you'll never be vulnerable again." Public service as entertainment — a promising concept.
That promise is not entirely fulfilled. Montone's script feels a couple of cards shy of a marked deck. She lays colorful, often witty groundwork for a journey through some of history's notable scams, but doesn't always deliver a big theatrical payoff.
More problematic is the overlay of a drama involving Fink's pangs of conscience and Swanson's rebellious feelings. Here, too, you can taste the potential. I just wish the ingredients came together in a meatier manner. The denouement, in particular, feels undercooked.
Still, at its best, the production, which makes a neat fit for the speak easy-like environs of the 14 Karat Cabaret at Maryland Art Place, provides welcome summer diversion.
Where else can you hear about such cool cons as "Soapy" Smith, who had a field day in late 19th-century America; or the off-the-wall Mary Toft, who supposedly gave birth to a whole bunch of rabbits 290 years ago in an otherwise normal English town? This is the sort of play that will send you straight to Google seeking more info.
Right from the preshow activity, Kehoe's magic skills are very much in evidence. He goes beyond impressive card tricks. Among other things, he tackles the concept of chance with imaginative flair. One such bit involves four volunteers, random seat selection and a seemingly impossible result. (Prepare to get drawn into the act at some point. Audience participation is a major component of "Hoax.")
Kehoe tosses in a touch of Uri Geller (remember Uri Geller?) and also illustrates how you might think of a magic act as downright heart-stopping.
There's gross-out material, too, complementing a discussion of how cons will go to almost any lengths to gain trust, even submitting to things that look terribly painful (if you can force yourself to look). Kehoe's demonstration holds up well to the sort of stuff featured in that overblown show "The Illusionists" at the Hippodrome last season.
The night I attended, Kehoe's acting, like Montone's, tended to be stiff and soft-spoken, their timing sluggish (the show would flow more tightly without an intermission). But the potential is there, and things ought to come together as the run continues.
Visually, "Hoax" clicks. The set (Harley Winkler) gives off a fine circus sideshow vibe, circa 1940s-'50s, complemented by the costumes (Montone) and a smoothly integrated sound design (Kehoe) that includes lots of perfect vintage music.
By the way, although Thursday night performances are billed "come as you are," audiences on Fridays and Saturdays are expected to wear their "best 'Mad Men'-esque attire. … If you want to be part [of] something clever, you should be dressed smartly."
I confess to violating the code, but I do like the idea of trying to get everyone in the same retro mood. That could be downright magical.
If you go
"Hoax" runs through Aug. 20 at 14 Karat Cabaret, Maryland Art Place, 218 W. Saratoga St. Tickets are $25 to $35. Call 443-681-9229, or go to maxwellfink.com.