The Numbers Game, the Pulp Collective‘s post-Prohibition mobster play now on stage at the Storefront Theatre, is something of an experiment in storytelling. It’s set up like a TV miniseries, with six short episodes playing over the course of the run. You can either binge episodes (the previous week’s episode always plays at 7pm before the current episode) or go on a weekly schedule to catch all six.
There’s about an hour break in between if you choose to binge, during which (if you’re anything like me) you’re able to chat about where you think the story is going with your fellow theatre-goers. And you will, because The Numbers Game is a total blast, and part of the fun comes from being able to speculate about its twists and turns.
Episode One introduces us to our two main players: Dutch Schultz (Jamie Cavanagh) and Queenie St. Clair (Karine Ricard), two mobsters in and around post-Prohibition New York. Queenie has made a fortune off ‘the numbers game’ in Harlem, a method of placing bets on horse races to manipulate the final numbers in order to up the payoff.
Then Dutch Schultz, a powerful gangster looking for a new income stream post-Prohibition, tries to take over her game. From there, the two embark on an intense, racially charged power play that comprises most of Episode Two. Loyalties are made and betrayals enacted amongst hails of bullets, and to say more would rob you of the pleasure of seeing it all play out.
I’ll admit: I still don’t totally get how this particular numbers game works, even though the play takes pains to explain it, though I’m not sure it matters: the details of the con are less important than the machinations of Dutch and Queenie trying to take each other down, and the complicated racial politics inherent in a white man trying to invade and seize a criminal enterprise wholly devised and carried out by people of colour.
The conflict is carried out ably by a strong cast. As Dutch, Cavanagh is a tight ball of tension: jaw clenched, brow tense, purposeful in every move he makes. He exudes a kind of controlled power that feels both commanding and volatile, as though Dutch is always mere seconds away from an explosion of intense but calculated violence. His scenes simmer with tension, particularly when his underlings—played by Brandon Coffey with great comedic timing, and Jeff Hanson with appealing sleaze—say something he doesn’t like.
By comparison, Queen is all elegance and steel, and her power is more subtle: hers is more a game of connections, social politics and carefully directed threats; she’s also a great speaker and makes use of the skill. She’s more than a formidable foe, her elegant exterior hiding an unflinching determination and a willingness to get her hands dirty—all layers that Ricard pulls off with an appealing combination of grace and grit. For her, the numbers game isn’t just about the payout, but about protecting her own. Though a criminal herself, she’s more of a burgeoning people’s hero, and the one you’ll likely root for.
Each episode also has a guest star. In Episode One, we have Dwain Murphy as a ‘traitorous’ hand on Dutch’s payroll, who exudes both style and menace—he couldn’t feel more authentic here. In Episode Two, Beau Andrew Dixon (also one of the series’ playwrights) is a force of nature on the stage as a potential trumpet-toting ally for Queenie; Dixon knows how to wring every ounce of character out of a line, and is tremendous fun.
There’s nothing too fancy in the staging or set design, and though the costumes look sharp and period-appropriate, the emphasis here is on storytelling. Like the Netflix show format it seeks to emulate, I found myself wishing that I could stop the action, rewind certain parts to listen a second time, or re-examine a moment in a new context. There’s a lot going on in the short ‘episodes’ (30-40 minutes long each): lots of characters introduced, history to parse, organizations to establish, etc. You really have to sit up and pay attention, because the show throws you into the world and time and expects you to keep up.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: it helps the world feel real and keeps it devoid of forced exposition, giving it a sense of convincing history and life. A lot of the dialogue shoots by because it’s quick and clever and apt to turn on a dime; in this way, it’s only reflective of the universe the characters inhabit. Like a good Netflix show, though, I do think I could have handled slightly longer episodes at a slightly slower pace.
Here’s the bottom line, though: it’s damned fun. With its cast of engaging characters, intriguing plot and nuanced conflict, it’s a great time that doesn’t demand much of your time. The Numbers Game is an engaging storytelling experiment, full of so much promise and possibility that I’m already looking forward to my next binge of Episodes 3 and 4. What will happen next?
How cool is it to be able to ask that of a play?
- The Numbers Game runs at the Storefront Theatre (955 Bloor St.) until November 6th.
- Tickets are $20 per One Episode; $35 per Two Episodes; $65 for 6-Episode Pass. Tickets can be purchased online.
- Note the episodic nature! Though each episode is purportedly self-contained, the most rewarding experience is undoubtedly to watch from the beginning.
- Six episodes play out from Thur-Sun at 7:00pm & 8:30pm respectively. The previous week’s episode ‘airs’ first, followed by the new:
- September 29 to October 2: Episode 1
October 6 to October 9: Episode 1 & 2
October 13 to October 16: Episode 2 & 3
October 20 to October 23: Episode 3 & 4
October 27 to October 30: Episode 4 & 5
November 3 to November 6: Episode 5 & 6
- September 29 to October 2: Episode 1
Photo by John Gundy. From left to right: Ucal Shillingford, Andrew Beau Dixon (behind gun), Karine Ricard, Ngabo Nabea, Jeff Hanson, Jamie Cavanagh, James Jonathon McDougalll, Brandon Coffey.