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Ends of the Earth: Nigerian E- Mail Scams Get Their Dramatic Due

If you have an email address, then Scamoramaland, a world premiere by Performers Under Stress, will be deeply personal to you. You, too, have received the bizarre missives — the presumption of intimacy, the shoddily detailed dire straits, the creative grammar, and, of course, the ask and its hoary complications: Western Union, bank account numbers, or, heaven forbid, a barrister.

But unlike the characters in this comedy, by local playwright Eve Edelson, you probably haven't responded to your "dear ones" — Nigerian e-mail scammers — whether out of gullibility or malice. As some in this play scam, so others "scambait," pretending to fall for a scam and scamming the scammers.

That's the beauty of Edelson's premise. It offers us curious email account-holders a glimpse of what might have been had we quelled our doubts and marshaled our sympathy, or, for those with a lot of time on our hands, rallied our improv and bullying skills.

David Strathairn is determined to collect his overdues.
Kevin Berne
David Strathairn is determined to collect his overdues.

Details

Through Nov. 17 at Bindlestiff Studio, 185 Sixth St., S.F. $15-$30; performersunderstress.com.Through Nov. 23 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F. $20 and up; 749-2228 or act-sf.org.

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Alas, in this incarnation, Scamoramaland remains just that: a good premise. In practice, Edelson's play skirts too many stories and issues without delving deeply into any. Take Tom (Scott Baker), Richmond, Va., resident, wheelchair user (he was wounded in the line of duty as a bank security guard), obsessive checker of the security cameras he's installed guerrilla-style at local cemeteries, and chief scambaiter in an international online "guild" that includes Serge (S. Angelo Acevedo) and Anna (Melissa Clason). All of this background, which also includes his conflicts with put-upon but spirited wife Maureen (Valerie Fachman), feels arbitrary, because it never offers much payoff. Instead, it just dilutes the comic juice of the story, which is his online interactions with Freddy (James Udom), a Nigerian kid for whom scamming might be the route to big dreams of school and writing.

Under Neil Higgins's direction, the eight-person cast often misses comic opportunities that could make up for a preponderance of backstory. Yeelen Cohen, playing a British police officer who's investigating a scam, gets to make a juicy remark about how a purported captive has "surprisingly good Internet access," but Cohen delivers the line as if he doesn't understand his own joke.

Tom in Scamoramaland would probably empathize deeply with the Librarian (David Strathairn) in Underneath the Lintel at A.C.T. Like Tom, this character, the only one we see in Glen Berger's drama, is on a geeky quest whose importance might seem negligible to the outside world: A book gets returned overdue to his library in Hoofddorp in the Netherlands, and he seeks to apprehend the culprit. But the book isn't just overdue; it's 113 years overdue. Further, the only name in the record is "A." But the Librarian will not be deterred, even as the mystery broadens and deepens in scope so as to span the globe and skip through centuries. What starts as an overzealous enforcement of bibliotheque arcana becomes a crusade not so much to answer an unyielding question but to document and appreciate its clues and contradictions.

Nina Ball's set, the crackerjack local designer's first for the flagship company, is a cavernous menagerie of the kind of bric-a-brac you might find in your grandmother's attic. From this flotsam, the Librarian unearths his meticulously catalogued pieces of evidence: a dry-cleaning ticket, a registry form for bringing a pet into a new country.

While most stories behind these items are whimsical, imaginative, and richly detailed, the structure becomes repetitive after a while: Ephemera leads to ephemera, the Librarian crisscrosses the earth yet again, but he's still little closer to completing his quest.

Strathairn, under the direction of Carey Perloff, accentuates the Librarian's quirks, nasally delivering the Dutch accent so as to make the character sound extra nerdy, and ratcheting up the comic gestures to make this wandering scholar look like a clown. These choices, while providing initial levity, take away from playwright Berger's attempt to weave in tragic bits from the Librarian's own life story.

The mystery, perhaps unsurprisingly, eventually takes the Librarian into the realm of religious myth, exploding the character's circumscribed, officious world and giving his life meaning not in answers but in the joy of discovering just how big the question is. While neither the script nor the direction is perfect, the show makes the thrill of research something even non-nerds can sink their teeth into.

 
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