Dallas — The world premiere of Neil Tucker’s posthumous play Oil, directed by Marty Van Kleeck at Theatre Three, starts on a promising comic note, gradually introducing a stereotypical rich oilfield family, and then stumbles on relentlessly for two hours of feudin’, fussin’ and a big ol’ Texas barbecue, complete with bluebonnets and Bushes. The hard-working cast lands some funny one-liners, but there’s a lot of clunky dialogue about family heritage and energy issues so heavy Thespis himself couldn’t lift it to believability.
The play opens in semi-darkness where we see two bodies curled beneath the satin covers of a fancy round bed, the center of Bruce R. Coleman’s simple, suggestive set design. Dark heads of oil pumps move rhythmically against a sunset on video screens in two corners of the arena stage, as a woman rouses herself and tells her bedmate how they once made love in the oil fields. His reply is a rattling snore. She rolls out of bed, pulls on her housecoat and grouses, “Don’t start ignoring me first thing in the morning.” Okay, the pump dream is a little heavy-handed, but the quip is funny.
Right away, red-headed and rarin’ to go Magritte Holes (Gene Raye Price) is up and giving orders to her black “personal assistant” Maudie (Patricia E. Hill) outfitted in a black dress with white apron. The aging matriarch of the Holes family and daughter of the founder of Holes Oil Company may be sagging at the knees, but she’s still a pistol when it comes to planning a barbecue at the family’s Houston mansion in 1987. The guest list includes Arabian princes, Hollywood stars and their “good friends,” George and Barbara Bush. Yeah, the vice president.
Fueled with long hits from her hidden bottle of Crown Royal, Magritte checks to be sure there’s plenty of ice and bluebonnets. “Ladybird taught us to honor them,” she declares, her eyes shining with Lone Star patriotism.
Magritte plans to use the occasion to make a grand announcement that will save her family’s foundering oil company, driven into the red by barrels of cheap crude oil imported “from the Saudis.” She’s given up on her constipated husband Sycamore (John S. Davies), in bed and in the boardroom. Her vegan daughter Petite (Jenna Anderson) wants Magritte to come to her commune on the family land to dry out and think about the clean power of the sun, rather than dirty old oil. Magritte’s not having any. She says oil is in her half-breed Apache blood, and anyway Petite just wants money from her daddy to keep her “little cult” going.
Onto the scene arrives Leroy (Gregory Hullett), the Holes’ gay nephew raised as their own when his parents died. Literally kicked out of the family by Sycamore when he came out, Leroy is summoned to further the plot and his lusty aunt’s grand vision. With a weary husband, a vaporous daughter and a nephew who, as she says, “prefers the hotdog to the bun,” Magritte has to make something happen.
Lots of stuff happens in Oil, including potty-mouth Magritte’s drunken monologue delivered at the big barbecue where she welcomes everybody, no matter their race, sexual preference or country of origin, in words that require many asterisks and blanks. Talk about crude! If that’s love, I’ll take a pass. Whatever crimes the oil industry has committed, does it really deserve this lush as a savior?
Part of the problem with the play is that the matriarch, a weak mash-up of Mommie Dearest and Auntie Mame, is never fully found. Far from being lovable, Magritte is a pitiful alcoholic at best and a self-centered drunk heedless of her reckless babble, at worst. Her family members, none of who appears to have a life outside Magritte’s influence, put up with her shenanigans. But why?
Price is a gritty and strident Magritte, her rasping voice demanding and manipulative, by turns. Outfitted in Robin Armstrong’s fancy gold jackets and sporting a flame red wig, she delivers the comic lines with rewarding gusto. Her character’s various transformations, as written and delivered, feel rushed and melodramatic.
Davies’ Sycamore is a tired man, his courage frayed by the industry collapse and his low-keyed good looks no match for his hyper, boozy wife. Hill is funny as the sassy, loyal maid, avoiding the total stereotype, and staring down Magritte in a few bouts. Pretty, blonde Anderson, sweet-faced and appealing in her white-fringed robe, is an earnest and gentle Petite, helpless when her mother shrugs off her pleas to stop drilling on the acreage that once belonged to her Apache grandfather.
Hullet’s good-natured Leroy has the least believable role in the show, smiling indulgently as his crazy aunt rants about family on the one hand, and insults everything he is with her ugly mouth. Mustering some presence in the last scenes, Hulett’s Leroy injects some virility into his otherwise neutered character.
Tucker apparently wrote several drafts of the commissioned play in the years before his death in 1995. His daughter Raelle Tucker edited the work, which has been presented in readings at the Dallas Theater Center and Echo Theatre. The script’s history might account for the ragged and somewhat forced conclusion, but the words themselves do little to enlighten us about family bonds—or oil prices.
OK, I laughed at the joke about Dubya, then just the beer-swilling blueblood son of his politically powerful daddy. That guy, a president? Who’d a thunk it?