Man 1 Bank 0: What Happened When a Bank Cashed a Check for $95K That It Shouldn't Have

The set-up:

A young man, Patrick Combs, as a prank endorsed with a smiley face a promotional check received in the mail, made out to him for more than 95 thousand dollars, but labeled "non-negotiable". Much to his astonishment, the bank cashed it. The aftermath that followed is detailed in richly comedic terms by Combs, who became a media celebrity, wrote a book about the events, and has crafted a stunning play about "man vs. the machine" that Combs has taken to New Zealand, Canada, Scotland, Ireland, England and a number of U.S. cities.

Gerald LaBita's Theater LaB Houston, which lost its former space, has re-opened and will be presenting at Obsidian Art Space, launching its season there with the regional premiere of the touring Man 1 Bank 0.

The execution:

The stage is almost bare, a small table and a chair, a few props scattered on the floor, and a projection screen for visuals. It is a one-man show, but what happens here is Shakespearean in size - we are given an adventure story of the first magnitude, filled with treachery, intimidation, deceit, the struggle of the poor and powerless against the might of the establishment, fear and trembling, and the worm turning, with courage and wisdom triumphing. And all told in vivid terms by a gifted actor with an endearing lack of vanity and a finely-honed sense of humor.

It is the details that are enthralling. We learn some of the intricacies of bank law, displayed with wit rather than erudition, and the visual projections serve well to make salient points tersely and comically. Combs claims not to be an actor, but I disagree, as he portrays at times his mother, an older brother, bullying bank officials, slackers, and an elderly legal scholar, and he delineates each clearly and humorously. The story is really a saga, not an anecdote, and includes unexpected twists, hard decisions, and a continuing suspense as to the outcome that would make many a thriller green with envy.

The tone is flawless, as Combs has the writing skill to make the evening about the ensuing events and not about himself. He is self-deprecating, and has the audience on his side from the beginning, taking us with him on a journey of discovery and adventure, much like Flash Gordon against the evil emperor Ming. When fame came to him through television tabloids, on one show viewers voted 50-1 to "keep the money!"

Combs is dressed simply in torn jeans and a T-shirt, and several T-shirt changes signify wittily the corresponding changes in life style. The lighting design is effective, and the projections crisp and colorful, with the sheen of success that many a power point presentation might emulate. The flow of humor and suspense is uninterrupted by an intermission, and runs about 95 minutes - one wishes it were even longer, as nothing seems extraneous - well, maybe the curbside dog, but the bit is hilarious. As I and the enthusiastic audience left, I thought "Withdrawal from these comedic heights will be no easy matter." The verdict:

Brilliant writing about real events, from a gifted raconteur, creates a comic masterpiece that is not to be missed. It blends attitude with suspense, wit with warmth, while skewering a bullying "establishment", to create an evening rich in satisfaction and joy.

Man 1 Bank 0 continues through November 17, from Theatre LaB Houston at Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak. For information or ticketing, call 713-868-7516 or contact www.theaterlabhou

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Jim Tommaney