Rustlers and Hustlers

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Con men have always found safe haven in theaters. Theater is based on persuasion. Actors we know not to be Greek Goddesses or Roman Senators speak to us from the stage and convince us otherwise. It's not surprising then that many of theater's great roles are men and women we shouldn't trust with our wallets or souls.

One of the classic confidence men in American drama is Bill Starbuck. Starbuck is the title character of N. Richard Nash's play The Rainmaker. Starbuck was originated on stage by the great Darren McGavin and played in the famous 1956 film by Burt Lancaster.

The Rainmaker, about a drifter who says he can make it rain in the middle of a drought for only $100, was one of the most popular plays of the 1950's. It was translated into forty languages and it still gets revived in regional theaters. The reason for its lasting success is twofold. First, and most directly, the role of Starbuck is a stellar part for a leading man. Secondly, Starbuck quietly affirms the following lesson: if you're earnest (and handsome) enough, stealing from folks isn't criminal, it's the American way.

A small revival of The Rainmaker currently playing in Silverlake and a big revival of the musical version, 110 in the Shade, playing on Broadway, proves that this vision of America goes down better with music these days. The simple, pass-the buttermilk and biscuits production at the Knightsbridge Theater, directed by Joseph Stachura, lacks guile. The Silverlake Starbuck is played by an actor with a great name, John Sperry Sisk. But instead of finding complexity in the character's hucksterism, Sisk's Starbuck simply comes off as a Texas-sized used-car salesman.

The musical version of The Rainmaker fares somewhat better...though not much. The singing Starbuck is played by Steve Kazee. While he has a decent voice and a nice swagger, he's completely overshadowed by the little lady he's trying to seduce, played by Audra MacDonald. 110 in the Shade is a faithful musical adaptation of The Rainmaker, but the songs aren't particularly memorable. Mainly, the music makes Nash's idyllic, prairie setting seem more like a fantasy land -- which is appropriate for a story where in the end the con-man has a heart of gold and water does indeed fall from the sky.

A new work by British playwright Karoline Leach also brings a larger-than-life con man to the stage. Her play Tryst, which premiered off-Broadway last year and is currently playing at LA's Black Dahlia Theatre, features a man with an even better fake name than Bill Starbuck. Leach's play set in Edwardian England features a drifter who introduces himself to unsuspecting women as Mr. George Love. Instead of promising to make it rain, which would fail to impress even the most lonely English spinster, George Love vows to make his victims into honest women.

Actor, Gabriel Olds succeeds in making George Love despicable as well as loveable, and this duality is vital -- as it is for Deborah Puette, who makes Love's mark, the frail, naïve Adelaide Pinchon, more than meets the eye. Leach's play is nuanced, suspenseful, with a particularly devastating ending. Director Robin Larsen adds minimal but effective visuals, making this two-person play seem like an old daguerreotype come to life. Like most trysts, Leach's Tryst may not be worth revisiting, but for those who enjoying being seduced in the theater, it's a small, unexpected thrill that's perfect for one night.

Tryst runs at the Black Dahlia Theatre through July 1, The Rainmaker pours at the Knightsbridge Theatre until July 8, and 110 in the Shade bakes at Studio 54 in New York through July 29.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.