Theater review: “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”

From the July 31, 2014 edition

For the briefest moment in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” playwright Jeffrey Lane and lyricist/composer David Yazbek conjure the spirit of Professor Henry Higgins in Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” (or more properly, this being a musical, in Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady”). The suave Lawrence Jameson (Matt Clemens) contemplates taking on the crass Freddy Benson (Joe Bishara) as a project to transform and train in con artistry. Lawrence calls Freddy “so deliciously low, so horribly dirty,” directly quoting Higgins’ reference to the flower girl Liza Doolittle.

That’s as classy as “Scoundrels” gets, try as it might. Which is not to say “Scoundrels” isn’t mildly engaging, frequently clever in its way with words, occasionally surprising. Even if you’ve not seen the 1988 Michael Caine-Steve Martin non-musical film on which it was based, you’re likely to see at least the penultimate punchline coming an hour ahead of time, though you may not quite envision the final twist.

In a CATCO preview performance, Liz Wheeler, as “The American Soap Queen” Christine Colgate from Cincinnati, steals the show out from under the blithely bumbling Bishara. Rather than channeling Higgins, Clemens has a Daniel Craig as James Bond vibe as Lawrence, with a few touches of Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove when he dons the persona of therapist Dr. Shüffhausen. In a curiously sentimental subplot, Susan Bunsold Wilson and Todd Covert abandon early attachments to Lawrence to devote themselves to each other.

“Scoundrels” is pleasant enough summer fare. What a dirty rotten shame it isn’t more.

Photo credit: Ben Sostrom