Misdirection, unreliable narrators and skewed perceptions are all the rage these days from the controversial Netflix sci-fi/thriller series, “The O.A.” to the A.R.T.’s “Fingersmith,” an engaging and byzantine play by Alexa Junge and directed by Bill Rauch (he did the terrific “All the Way” with Bryan Cranston) that’s up through Sunday at the Loeb Drama Center.
“Fingersmith” was first a novel by Sarah Waters (2002), then a two-part mini-series for the BBC (2005) and is now a theatrical production, originally done by the Oregon Shakespeare in Cambridge. I had the good fortune – and I mean this – not to have read the book or seen the TV series. Why is this good fortune? Because a lot of the pleasure to be had from the play involves the unexpected twists and turns, which is why here, I will try to set the scene, but reveal as little as possible … while suggesting you take a dive into devilish duplicity done proud in Victorian England. (There’s also love, betrayal and redemption.)
The play opens with Sue Trinder (Tracie Chimo) a pickpocket (aka “fingersmith”) speaking directly to us as she stands in front of what can only be called a Dickensian tenement. She lives, basically, in a house of thieves, ruled by Mrs. Sucksby (Obie-winning, Tony nominee Kristine Nielsen), who runs a skeevy business of taking in unwanted infants born to young girls and re-routing them to rich families.
A very dapper man enters. An old friend of Mrs. Sucksby, his name is Richard Rivers, but he’s referred to as Gentleman (Josiah Bania) and he certainly looks the part. He persuades Sue to be the maid to Maud Lilly (Christina Bennett Lind) who lives in the country with her well-off uncle. Sue’s task is to get smart quick – learn the mannered ways of the upper class – persuade the heiress to marry Gentleman. Then, after much chicanery and double-dealing, she and Gentleman will have Maud at an insane asylum and make off with the loot.
That’s about all I want to say as a set-up. It’s a fast-moving play, jumping from present to past with lightning speed and if there’s a flaw in this helter-skelter maelstrom, it’s just that it’s difficult to sort out who’s doing what when. (Not unlike “The O.A,” come to think of it.) There were some chunks of dialogue that I couldn’t latch onto – and I can’t say if it was under-articulation on the stage or my own damned rock ‘n’ roll ears that affected that most.
It all plays out on Christopher Acebo’s fabulous, synchronous two-tiered set, the slum part and the country manor.
In the first act, it’s Sue telling her story; in the second it’s Maud and it is, well, a big different story, with an unexpected romantic turn among the many other head-spinning OMG moments. “Fingersmith” works on multiple levels: In many ways it’s a dark comedy, in others a mystery, another a tale of class conflict and morality and of gender power relationships.
64 Brattle St., Cambridge, 617-547-8300. Tickets: $95.