Bay Street Theater’s first foray into immersive theater, Tom Salamon’s The Grift is a fun way to challenge your ability to think on your feet, work on your improv and explore areas of Sag Harbor you may never get to see otherwise. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
When my fellow Dan’s Papers editor Oliver Peterson and I entered Bay Street on the first night of previews, we were assigned to one of five teams, the orange team, which paired us with a mysterious masked man named Steve (though to be fair, we were all encouraged to remain masked, so it wasn’t all that mysterious). Once the other teams filled out, the lights in the lobby grew dim and a sharply dressed gentleman, played by Gabriel Portuondo, drew everyone’s attention to a television screen where we were filled in on the dramatic backstory of Ben, the late master of deception who invited each audience member to gather there that evening. Portuondo spoke swiftly and intensely, setting the stage wonderfully for our adventure into the (thankfully fictional) shady underbelly of Sag Harbor.
He then cued a postmortem recording of Ben, portrayed by a famous actor who only long-time Bay Street supporters may be able to guess. Though only a recording played on a small screen, the performance was powerful and moving, swaying the audience to get onboard with helping a seemingly well-intentioned con artist take down a more sinister conman known as Eddie “The Hammer” Hammersmith. To do so, we’d need to pull off one final grift: Fare Thee Well.
But first, we had to prove we could pull off five smaller grifts, so the groups split off with five combination-locked boxes and a clue to their first rendezvous point. This is where the adventure begins, with each group directed to a different starting point in Sag Harbor — a private townhouse, a gallery basement and other exclusive spots that even Sag Harbor residents likely haven’t seen — and with the groups cycling through each rendezvous point once. Even if you’re not a fan of unconventional theater or group activities, this behind-the-scenes tour alone makes the show worthwhile.
The orange team’s first clue took us to meet Grady (Jonathan Randell Silver), whose hyper, frantic energy quickly reminded us that time was of the essence. He introduced us to our first timed test of intelligence, which, without giving too much away, required the smallest level of music sight reading knowledge. Unfortunately, Oliver and I did not even possess that level of knowhow, so it’s a good thing we were paired with someone who did. That challenge unlocked the first of our boxes, which contained instructions to the first grift we’d need to complete: the pig in the poke. Like many of the grifts that followed, this required a bit of acting and deception. All around, our first set of challenges offered a great deal of excitement, exemplified by Silver’s electric performance.
Our next set of trials were introduced by the delightful Wendy (Ally Callaghan), whose jovial humor and simple challenges were a delightful reminder that though our speed and intelligence were being tested, this is ultimately a fun game to be enjoyed. Callaghan’s blunt art critiques were a scene highlight. It then took a few minutes for the recipient of our email grift to respond, likely due to the show’s time balancing which keeps the speedier teams from racing off into a scene occupied by another team.
Once we got the green light, the orange team was off to a bar — though not the one you’re thinking — to help the cunning Danny (Joe Pallister) scam some cash out of the unsuspecting bartender. But first, we had to prove our worth in a test of intelligence that was surprisingly difficult but oh-so-satisfying once we solved the equation. Pallister’s performance came across natural, effortless, as if not playing a character at all.
We then met Eloise (Rachel Feldman) at, probably the most exclusive of the rendezvous points, for two fairly easy tasks: find some clues and play along. It was during the second portion, the actual grift, when we met The Hammer (Eddie Kassar) himself and things grew tense. Eloise was trying to bait and schmooze The Hammer while hiding her obvious tell, and the whole time, he was emanating a commanding, distrustful aura, seemingly ready to call her bluff at any moment. The two actors played off each other’s energy wonderfully and gave the most dramatic performances of the show, which was certainly welcome considering this particular grift largely consisted of sitting and watching the riveting scene play out.
Last of the trial grifts, we arrived at Jackie’s (Elena Faverio) meeting place, where we encountered our most difficult task yet. And it was then that we realized losing was, quite literally, not an option. Having failed to solve the puzzle in the allotted time, we were given bonus time and failed that, too. The merciful Jackie had to basically give us the answer, which may have bruised our egos a bit, but it didn’t deter us from facing part two of their challenge. We failed this one too, though not for lack of intelligence. Ready to pull a fast one on the poor sap who called the number I provided, I soon realized I had no cell service, and a workaround solution was implemented. Despite this challenging penultimate scene, it was a personal favorite due to the bubbly charm that Faverio brought to their infectiously gleeful character.
After everything we had faced, it was finally time for all teams to return to Bay Street for Fare Thee Well. As we all got settled in anticipation for the climax, each team talking among themselves, The Hammer made his return, more intimidating than ever. It was up to the teams to work together and remember key info learned throughout (hint: the email received) to take him down. And what a satisfying conclusion it was.
All in all, The Grift is a fun, beguiling adventure from start to finish. The story puts a unique spin on local history, the adventure offers a behind-the-scenes tour of Sag Harbor, the challenges range in difficulty and test a variety of skills, and each actor adeptly balances their roles of colorful character and game guide. It’s a rare immersive experience that’s not to be missed.
The Grift continues at Bay Street Theater Thursday, March 31 through Sunday, April 3. For more info and tickets, call the box office at 631-725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.