Patrick Combs is a story magnet. After his shows, audience members often come up to him and start telling him their own personal tales of woe. Some are short and pithy (“my bank screwed me out of $2,000”). Others are rambling and bizarre (“I visited a Cuban friend’s family, and they thought he was my toyboy”). Combs always listens patiently, taking the tales at face value. He knows that the storytellers are recounting the truth. At its core, that’s what his own story is all about — telling the truth.
Combs’ open-faced honesty really helps to make Man 1, Bank 0 work. As the audience members follow him through his “life experiment,” they can tell that his emotions are real. Embellishments aren’t necessary. He tells the remarkable story of a man who single-handedly brought down a bank. What’s even more remarkable, though, is that this story involves obscure financial terms, and he still keeps the audience enthralled.
In 1995 Combs was young, poor, living on mac and cheese and mired in $45,000 of credit card debt when he received a junk mail check and decided to deposit it for fun. He endorsed it with a smiley face and put it in his ATM, never expecting the $95,000 fake would be accepted. It was. For the next several months, Combs went through periods of elation and fear, courage and cowardice, all because the bank refused to admit its mistake.
The performer keeps his staging simple, sticking to stage left with an armchair, a table and a coat stand to suggest his Haight-Ashbury home. There’s no backdrop, but Combs makes great use of images on a projector screen. For example, he shows us a blown-up version of the original check, the outside of his local bank branch, the law library he visited to confirm his rights, and the slim book he found called “Negotiable Instruments and Check Collection in a Nutshell.”
Combs keeps his financial frolics interesting by building up tension. Will the law be on his side? Will he be able to keep the money, or will he go to jail for criminal mischief, fraud or bank robbery with a smiley face? He also spices the story up by playing different characters like his conservative brother Mike; a boorish bank rep; and tetchy old Henry Bailey, an authority on check law. “You’ve got ’em by the balls, son,” Bailey tells him, and there’s sheer delight in Combs’ eyes as he realizes that the check meets all the criteria to be treated as a genuine deposit.
The audience is fascinated by his yarn. There’s something about his underdog status, the bank’s bungling and prevarication, and his sheer disbelief at the ludicrous situation that makes this show fascinating to watch. There are many funny moments, too. Combs becomes obsessed with an automated bank balance voice, calling it up several times a day to hear how much he has in his account. He gets insider information from a guy called Wally, who insists that Combs eats his secret note. And he gets advice from his family, who warn him that he’ll be killed in his sleep if he doesn’t return the dough.
While the bank keeps asking for the money back, Combs learns about his rights and becomes a champion of the common customer. All he wants from the bank is a letter admitting their mistake, then he’ll hand over his cashier’s check for the money. The bank tries to break him down with threatening phone calls.
Combs responds to all this — and the civil suit that follows — in very human ways. Sometimes he’s polite but resolute; other times he’s timorous, scared, sweating bullets. As he pulls dates from a paper calendar, you can hear him counting the days, see him remembering what happened. That one degree of separation from the adventure makes us wonder what we would do in his quaking boots.
Don’t believe Combs’s story? He has physical evidence to go with the slideshow. He finds Bailey’s law book, and we see the dust rising from the pages. When he finally gets a letter from the bank, we see him pull it out of the envelope. It’s the opposite of a magician’s illusion; instead of hiding his intentions like his bank, Combs reveals everything honestly, never holding his feelings back.
It’s been five years since Combs brought his bank-balancing act to Piccolo. This version is tighter, funnier, and more dramatically efficient. There are a couple of cheesy animation effects on his slideshow that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the mid-’90s. The sound on some of his video clips is muddy and heard to hear. His choice to keep the show on one side of the stage means that the best seats in the house are at the front right hand side of the auditorium. But these are minor complaints for a show that takes an unusual tale and turns it into an excellent examination of modern life and the value of doing the right thing.