By Dana Casadei
Plays and musicals often contain three essentials: characters, plot and a set. Some are simple, others elaborate a la "West Side Story" or "August: Osage County," both of which have complex sets and characters. "Conned," at Detroit's City Theatre, breaks many "rules" of traditional theater, but is all the more interesting for it.
The show, directed by Jim Milan, tells many stories but doesn't really have a plot. There are four "characters" and the set looks like an open mic night at your local bar. But again, this isn't a bad thing. If anything, it's one of the most real things you'll see. Each of the four "characters," all internationally known con men, share numerous stories and tricks of their trade, while taking the audience under their wing. They let viewers into the world of darkened back alleys, smoky casinos and basement card games.
When the show begins, Todd Robbins, an authority of deception and "the king of New York con men" according to The New York Times, walks on stage and introduces the evenings "characters."
His three friends are Bob Arno, pickpocket; Banachek, an expert on psychological manipulation; and Richard Turner, card cheating expert. Once all four are standing on stage there's a slight resemblance to the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. But quickly it's shown these men are more Rat Pack than redneck.
Throughout the evening, each man shows how they became the best at what they do, with Robbins guiding the audience along for the two-hour ride. Audience members are called up so the men can show off their skills, which include metal bending forks, pick-pocketing everything from watches to ties, and proving why you should never play cards with a stranger. At one moment the whole audience gets conned, and you won't see it coming.
The men don't have many things in common but that they're some of the most famous con men, well, ever. Each is charming, suave in a way only a con man could be, and most importantly, likeable. You know they've all stolen and cheated and who knows what else, but they're guys you want to grab a drink with. Guess that's part of their "character."
The show won't be a fit for everyone. There were a few volunteers who were obviously not too pleased to be on stage. But if you're with an audience that's willing to go along with them and actively participate in the cons, it makes the show all the more enjoyable.
There's a moment in Act One when Robbins talks about how old cons are the best and how they can last forever. The same goes for shows like this; they're out-of-the-box but honest and gritty, making them ideal for anyone that's a little afraid of "traditional" theater.
City Theatre inside Hockeytown Cafe, 2301 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Thursday-Sunday through Jan. 27. 2 hours, 15 minutes. $32.50-37.50. 313-471-3099. http://www.OlympiaEntertainment.com