Local Play Celebrates Nigerian Scammer-Jammers

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For most people Nigerian email scams are a joke, ludicrously transparent spam messages claiming to be from a foreign prince or orphan heiress who needs help transporting money and reclaiming a vast fortune. All they need is your personal information and a great deal of money in fees, bribes and other expenses, and then untold riches will be yours for your help in their time of distress. Most people will look at this, laugh, maybe read it aloud to their friends, and then delete it. And that's fine: you're not the type the email scammers are fishing for. It's the people gullible enough to think such a preposterous scheme could possibly be on the level that they want, so that they can build a relationship over email to hook them in further, with frequent requests for more money to get past purportedly unexpected snags.

The situation is so rife with dramatic possibilities that it's surprising there haven't been a lot of plays about the topic. But at last one has popped up in the Bay Area's theatrical inbox that's worth flagging for follow-up. Scamoramaland is a world premiere production of Performers Under Stress, a 20-year-old local company imported from Chicago, where it reverse-engineered its name from the acronym PUS. (That may or may not seem less gross when you know it's a Samuel Beckett reference.) The play was adapted by Bay Area writer Eve Edelson from her own nonfiction book Scamorama: Turning the Tables on Email Scammers.

As that subtitle implies, the play is only partly about the scam and scammers themselves, and surprisingly little about their bilked victims. Much of the story is devoted to people who take it on themselves to mess with the fraudsters, wasting their time and their money by stringing them along with feigned interest and tall tales of their own.

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Duane Lawrence and Geoffrey Colton in Scamoramaland; photo: Scott Baker

The technological theme of the play is mostly captured in Geo Epsilanty's projections. Twin screens flanking the stage show African street scenes, surveillance video and instant messenger popup windows. Those screens are pretty much all there is to Erich Blazeski's set, aside from some furniture that rolls off and on to establish the play's many locations.

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By far the most compelling parts of Scamoramaland are the glimpses into the lives of the email entrepreneurs in Nigeria. James Udom exudes almost desperate ambition as Freddy, a hungry young aspiring writer who tries to exercise his creativity in the "dearest one" pitches he sends to strangers on the Internet, while he has to beg his boss for enough of a cut to pay his school fees. The big cheese is Oga (a forceful Duane Lawrence), an imposing, well-dressed gentleman who poses as Barrister Williams, the smooth-talking lawyer who handles all the financial arrangements for the rich dupes and their fictional pen pals.

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Scott Baker in Scamoramaland; photo: Sylvia Kratins

The band of merry pranksters is harder to fathom. It's a loose-knit group of three anonymous international "comrades" who convene online "to meet evil head-on and waste its time." Although Edelson doesn't make this point overtly, they select their victims the same way their prey does, seeking out particularly gullible and eager-to-please grifters. Tom (PUS cofounder Scott Baker) is a wheelchair-bound surveillance enthusiast obsessed with catching young punks vandalizing the local historic cemetery. Baker plays the part with gusto, a Southern accent, a big but unconvincing scar on his cheek and a Pabst Blue Ribbon-patterned shirt. The costumes are by company managing director Valerie Fachman, who amiably plays Tom's patient and long-suffering wife, who cheerily keeps trying to coax him out of the house to see a movie or to take the free trip to Paris that she won in a sweepstakes.

Paris is home to another member of Tom's online Guild: Serge (a suave S. Angelo Acevedo), who makes a living charming visitors into an unofficial tour of Pere Lachaise Cemetery. The third member of the band is Anna (Melissa Clason), a busy and successful publishing executive, but not so busy that she doesn't spend all her time pretending to be a soccer-obsessed Russian billionaire to mess with Freddy and Oga. By outrageous coincidence, the Nigerians' primary chump is Anna's father, from whom she inherited her job. Very cultured and very British, Geoffrey Colton's Alan seems remarkably at peace with being cheated out of large sums of money. There's a confusing bit about Anna being worried about Alan's mental and physical health, which is odd because he seems fine.

In fact, a lot of the scenes fleshing out the lives of the counter-scamming crew feel meandering and obligatory. The play dissolves in the second act, as if Edelson's unsure what to do with all these interesting characters she's created, and there isn't much of an ending. But along the way there are a lot of very funny moments, well-paced in director Neil Higgins' staging. It's priceless to see Alan trying to make sense of Barrister Williams' ludicrously convoluted tale, which he sells through sheer force of personality. Alan's report to a British police officer (Yeelen Cohen) is punctuated with each trying to make feeble little jokes that the other doesn't even pick up on.

Some of the play's most powerful moments are the Nigerians' bursts of rage when they realize they're being trifled with by yet another "joke man," though perhaps they should have realized that Tom's accounts of fending off mutant kangaroos in West Dakota were a bit far-fetched. Ultimately the coincidences and connections in Edelson's play strain credulity as well, but it's a credit to the liveliness of her writing and the PUS production that we fall for it as long as we do.

Scamoramaland runs through November 17, 2013 at Bindlestiff Studio in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit performersunderstress.com.