Alix Korey and Juri Henley-Cohn
in Inventing Avi
(© Kim Sharp)
Alix Korey and Juri Henley-Cohn
in Inventing Avi
(© Kim Sharp)
It takes considerable finesse to set up an effective con. With Inventing Avi, now premiering at the Abingdon Theatre Company, playwrights Robert Cary and Benjamin Feldman pull a series of fast ones on the audience. In their deconstructed saga of backstage skullduggery concerning the disputed authorship of a hit play, it's never quite clear -- or clear for very long -- just who is pulling the strings.

One thing is certain, though: It's Cary and Feldman, abetted by a superb cast and their deft director Mark Waldrop, who are consistently setting up -- and getting -- the laughs. True, the first act -- in which we, the prospective marks, are being prepped for the big payoff -- occasionally lags a bit and could use some trimming. The second, however, clicks into gear like a finely tuned machine.

Judy Siff (Alix Korey) is a dimwitted, mega-rich producer who has yet to hit upon box-office gold, despite such promising concepts as "a musical comedy about the Rosenbergs." She refuses even to consider the manuscript proffered by her assistant, David (Stanley Bahorek), who's convinced he has come up with the great American play -- about holocaust denial. Dejected, he schleps off to Kinko's, where he encounters aspiring actress, Amy (Havilah Brewster, adept at conveying steel-trap smarts). She hatches a plan involving her chameleonic scene partner (Juri Henley-Cohn), who's willing to take on the purely fictional persona of hot new Israeli playwright, Avi Aviv.

Amy also happens to serve as assistant to Judy's estranged sister, Mimi (the marvelous Emily Zacharias), a one-time stage diva whose star has been in slow decline. The prospect of funding from the foundation on whose board Mimi sits strikes Judy as sufficient rationale to call off their long-standing feud. Hilarious mini-flashbacks to Newark in the 1970s illuminate the roots of the siblings' rivalrous enmity. (Brewster and Lori Gardner play the young Mimi and Judy, respectively)

In farces like this one, it's the people behaving badly who tend to steal the scenes, and Zacharias has a field day with Mimi, a marvel of narcissism run amok. Gardner, chin tucked submissively, also portrays Mimi's much put-upon maid, Astrud, and her dry, subtle performance commands attention. As the unsung playwright who has willingly closeted himself, ceding credit in order to promote his masterpiece, Bahorek has fun with David's downward trajectory. Indeed, by the time David summons the gumption to protest the hijacking of his handiwork, he has been reduced to slurping Ben & Jerry's in a pitiful SRO.