Theatermakers are, by their very nature, storytellers. Their inherent need to tell stories is part of their DNA, as necessary as food and air and water. Integral to this need is an implied requirement that the story be worth telling. And herein lies the fundamental problem with Noah Diaz’s wildly theatrical but muddled new play The Swindlers: A True-ish Tall Tale, currently running at Baltimore Center Stage and soon to livestream. There may very well be a worthwhile story in the true-ish events that inspired Diaz’s play, but it has yet to come into focus.
We are told early on that this is a “stolen” story, a story not about Diaz but about his mother, Marie (Carmen Zilles), and her father, George (Christopher Ryan Grant), who was, alternately, a constant absence and disappointment. We actually don’t learn about this relationship until late in Act One, when the FBI shows up at Marie’s house demanding to know George’s whereabouts.
It turns out that George stole a lot of money, and unless Marie can deliver him, the feds will make her life a living hell. Act Two takes us on a road trip across the Midwest in George’s beat-up Winnebago, cleverly rendered in miniature on a dolly and pushed around the stage by the actors (the Laugh-In–inspired set is designed by Arnulfo Maldonado).
The actors, all of them in top form, are put through their paces by director Will Davis. Rachel Crowl and Derek Garza, in a variety of roles, ranging from married FBI agents, to the town tramp, Marie’s boyfriend, and a truck stop waitress, never stopping running. And they are both hilarious. Jon Hudson Odom is a confident guide as our narrator and, at times, stand-in for Diaz. Grant is appropriately oblivious as a father who fails to see how his poor choices have scarred his daughter. The production is held together by Zilles as a woman whose life has not gone quite how she planned. Funny, most lives never do.
Despite its attributes, and there are many, and Center Stage’s strong commitment to this new work, the story remains problematic. George tells Marie that their road trip allows him to spend time with her. But, why? He’s basically a stranger to her and, perhaps deservedly, she’s mean to him. We just don’t know enough about these people and their backstory to become really invested in what happens to them.
There is something very sweet about a son giving his mother the happy resolution he believes she deserves. And that is precisely what Diaz does here. Odom tells us that telling people that his grandfather was wanted by the FBI is a great story to tell at cocktail parties. It’s easier than telling people that his mother never got the love she needed from her father. But I think the latter would have made a far more interesting play.
Running Time: One hour 40 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
The Swindlers plays through September 26, 2021, at Baltimore Center Stage, 700 North Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD. The Swindlers will also be livestreamed September 21 to 26. Purchase in-person tickets online here and livestreaming tickets here.
Rachel Crowl: Fool 1; Derek Garza: Fool 2; Christopher Ryan Grant: George; Jon Hudson Odom: Context; Carmen Zilles: Marie
Noah Diaz, Playwright; Will Davis, Director; Diane Healy, Stage Manager; Tori Ujczo, Assistant Stage Manager; Arnulfo Maldonado, Scenic Designer; Alicia Austin, Costume Designer; Stacey Derosier, Lighting Designer; Brendan Aanes, Sound Designer; Raecine Singletary, Assistant Director; Corey Umlauf, Associate Scenic Designer; Stephanie Bahniuk, Associate Costume Designer; Bailey Costa, Assistant Lighting Designer; Casting By: Jz Casting Geoff Josselson, Csa Katja Zarolinski, CSA