New York — The late Texas playwright James McLure’s one-act plays, Laundry and Bourbon and Lone Star, are really more acting exercises than fully realized stories. With big, colorful characters and bawdy humor, it’s easy to see why they have become staples of acting schools and high-school speech tournaments. Both shows are full of declamatory monologues and character business, with realistic emotional arcs and narrative cohesion less in evidence. Both shows require tight direction, smart casting and intentional acting choices to feel authentic and fully inhabited. Unfortunately, the New York debut of Contemporary Theatre of Dallas shows less of the above than one would wish, rendering both productions rather incoherent, slow, and smaller than their “everything’s bigger in Texas” origins would suggest.
Director Cynthia Hestand mounted these plays in lauded Dallas productions in 2004 and 2006, so it’s hard to understand the miscasting and sluggishness that plagues this version. These are tales of dreams deferred and longing for lost youth, set in a small Texas town featuring characters that embody the cliché “peaked in high school.” Laundry and Bourbon is set on the sweltering back porch of Elizabeth (Marianne Galloway), who gossips and guzzles with her best friend, Hattie (Sue Loncar), over a depressingly large load of laundry. Elizabeth’s husband, returned Vietnam vet Ray, has been missing two days, Hattie’s kids are terrorizing the town, and the air conditioner is on the blink. The ladies’ commiseration is interrupted by the arrival of their “frenemy”Amy Lee (Marisa Diotalevi), who grew up poor with Hattie and Elizabeth but has now married into money and become an insufferable member of the country club set. These are women who in different ways have all settled, to varying degrees of satisfaction, and their barbs and veiled kindnesses mask their fear that the choices they’ve made may just be the wrong ones. Sounds promising, right? Unfortunately, the central performances don’t fully convey the uncertainty under the brassy Texas bravado.
Galloway has some strong moments as Elizabeth, who worries for her troubled husband and longs for the return of the rebellious youth she fell in love with, while still fearing he may not be capable of being the adult partner she needs now. Despite her individual strengths, Galloway sometimes seems to be performing in a different play than her co-stars. These characters were written to be in their late-20, but all three actresses are considerably older, and Loncar and Diotalevi are of a different generation than Galloway. That these three women grew up together is frankly unbelievable, and Loncar and Diotalevi’s performances are far broader and more caricatured than Galloway’s. The revelations that emerge from that back-porch gossip: infidelity, pregnancy, post-traumatic stress, come off as far less urgent and possess less pathos than they should because of the imbalance in characterization. Emotional bombs quietly implode instead of making any real impact. Ultimately, the drama is as stale and inert as Jonathan Felt’s excellent lighting design makes the heat on that back porch look and feel.
Lone Star focuses on Elizabeth’s husband, Vietnam vet Roy (Mike Schraeder), struggling and frustrated as he tries to readjust to the wife and life he left behind. Behind a local bar, he downs the titular beers and sings the praises of his classic pink Thunderbird, a rather heavy-handed symbol of his wild and unfettered youth, before he was scarred by war and regret. Roy’s younger brother, Ray (Joey Oglesby), less than smart and more than idolizing of his older, rougher brother, struggles to keep up with Roy’s drinking and his tall tales, laced as they are with bitter memories and abrupt anger. As the brothers bond and battle over lewd stories, too-crazy-too-be-true adventures, and barely suppressed conflicts, they too are interrupted, this time by Ray’s old nemesis, Cletus (Ken Orman), who is, of course, the husband of Laundry and Bourbon’s social-climbing Amy Lee.
Here again, miscasting rears its head. Orman looks at least a decade too old to still be trying to stand up to his father and hanging on to his high school adulation of Roy. The central revelation of Cletus’ role in Roy’s forced confrontation with maturity rings hollow due to this repetition of actors attempting to bring authenticity to roles too youthful for them. Thankfully, both Schraeder and Oglesby are believable as brothers, and Oglesby in particular brings charm, heart and a quiet restraint to his role that gives it dimension and resonance.
The real star of both shows is Rodney Dobbs’ efficient and effective set design. The modular set is evocative and creative, illustrating changes in both mood and locale, from Elizabeth’s back porch to the back of Angel’s bar, with a simple pivot and marvelously specific props. Would that the set could serve as the foundation for a better-cast, more cohesive production. Although the rather elderly crowd at Sunday’s matinee appeared to truly enjoy the shows, this may have had more to do with the novelty of the Texas setting and story than the actual impact of the overall production. The audience seemed much more attuned to the plays’ broad humor than the quieter pathos of McLure’s small-town misfits, which is not surprising. While Lone Star reveals modest but real strengths, Laundry and Bourbon mostly just hangs there.