Sometime between a wrestle with a pack of sailors and an Electric Cowboy-style dance number, I was overcome with the desire to empty my pockets and hand over my purse to Harold Dean, the actor playing the con man at the center of The Weekend Theater’s “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” It didn’t matter that I’d already seen Fanny of Omaha conned into funding his character’s nonexistent military campaign, or that I’d witnessed the Soap Queen telephone for $50,000 to be used on an exceedingly painful and complicated medical treatment only Dean’s character could perform. The man was a scoundrel, no question about it, but after I saw the way he handled a feather in a pinch, Harold Dean had my heart.
Here’s the story: Dean’s character, Lawrence, is a con man who has gotten a little bit too good at his game. He sees the artistry in an impeccably executed hoax; when considering a particularly tricky plan, he’s pensive and somber, adopting the stance of someone observing a painting in a gallery. With the allure of the Most Interesting Man in the World, and the grandfatherly charm of the father figure in a Jane Austen novel, he’s practically irresistible. (And, when the heiresses of the French Riviera are chasing you down with their checkbooks, the pursuit is almost too easy.)
Just to spice things up, he lets a Frenchman with oily hair and a sparse black mustache follow him around muttering about what a bad idea everything is. In the grand tradition of stuffy Frenchmen, André (Drew Ellis) is a real spoilsport, of the variety perhaps best represented by that notoriously uptight candle in “Beauty and the Beast,” Lumière. In situations he deems dangerous — seductions of any kind, for example — Ellis’ eyes delightfully flit to the left and right like a weasel in distress.
Occasionally, when André’s protests get to be too much or Dean needs some time away from his admirers, the con man retreats to the spotlight at stage right, gazing off at a spot in the far corner of the black-box theater, crunching his eyebrows and squinting his eyes to show you that the thoughts he’s having are exceptionally deep ones.
Some of the show’s best dialogue takes place right there, across Harold Dean’s face. His eyebrows go into conference with his lips, which flicker when he’s distressed by something exceptionally stupid, like the boy-man with calf-length socks and dreams of “Great Big Stuff” who thinks he can compete with him, a man capable of playing foreign prince and Viennese doctor at once.
When Dean talks to such people, he’ll smile at them in the way an adult smiles at a small child, looking over their head to catch the eye of another adult who can join in a shared joke over the delightfully stupid things ignorant children do (the only available adult in this situation being the audience, to whom Dean will occasionally direct a pointed glance, just to confirm that he has not been too harsh, and that the other characters in the play are indeed beyond hope).
At their best, directors Sarah Scott Blakey and Brandon Nichols get in on the joke. We’re talking about a musical in which jazz hands reign supreme and there are not one, but two can-can lines, and Blakey and Nichols aren’t above throwing in a good old-fashioned grapevine when the number calls for it.
They’re also not trying to disguise the fact that this is community theater, and their general irreverence smooths over the limitations of the cast. After all, the only person on stage who needs to be convincing is Harold Dean, and he is — until something horrible and unforgivable happens. With that plot pivot, something changes onstage, too: Suddenly, it seems like an exceptionally bare set, with fluorescent lighting and a whole lot of people linking arms for no particular reason. You start to feel funny, empty, something like the oil-baron heiress at the moment she realized her diamonds weren’t going to the war effort.
Dean withdrawal notwithstanding, though, the actual storyline (a stage adaptation of the Steve Martin/Michael Caine vehicle) is beside the point. Deceptions, miscommunications and musical numbers — all of them light as dinner theater — are to be taken no more seriously than the promises of a con man on the hunt.
“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” plays at The Weekend Theater at 7:30 p.m. Thu.-Sat. and 2:30 p.m. Sun. through July 8, with an 8 p.m. curtain time July 6. See weekendtheater.org for tickets.