By Elaine Liner
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The timeless conundrum of sexual attraction and its causes is examined anew in And Fat Freddy's Blues, a rare Dallas-Fort Worth-area world premiere of a play by a nationally known playwright. P.J. Barry, making his second visit to Fort Worth's Stage West, directs the 11th installment of his widely produced, 12-play Jericho Cycle. Spanning the years 1903 to 1994, the plays concern the lives and loves of various denizens of Jericho, Rhode Island. The Fort Worth connection developed through Stage West artistic director Jerry Russell, a pal of Barry's who also hails from the Ocean State.
Being sensitive to the egos of us Texans, Barry notes in the playbill that he's tickled to premiere a play about the nation's smallest state in the nation's biggest state. Thanks, P.J., but it's only fair to point out that Alaska is the nation's biggest state, not Texas. Cut Alaska in half, and Texas is the nation's third biggest state. Not to worry, though--we got over the whole locker-room business of who's biggest after the market dropped out of the oil industry 15 years ago.
In And Fat Freddy's Blues, Barry shows this same willingness to please, coupled with similar disregard for manifest realities. The play concerns Russ Calhoun, a World War II combat hero whose job as a movie projectionist allows him to hide from life. His wife, Jeannie, is walking out on him, thanks to an argument he's had with her father over the Korean War, and thanks to the reappearance of Diane Caputo, an old flame he's been trying to forget. Diane's dad, Fat Freddy Caputo, is a formerly corpulent mobster whose goal is to get Russ back for his daughter before he (Fat Freddy) croaks.
There are a couple of notions here that are hard to swallow. First, it's difficult to believe that Jeannie and Diane would find Russ to be a habit they can't kick at any price. As played by Peter Dobbins, Russ is a plucky little fellow, but somewhat lacking in male magnetism. A natural for Tom Ewell's conflicted nebbish in The Seven Year Itch, or for Robert Morse's little-guy-who-could in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Dobbins is miscast as a man too attractive for his own good.
Moreover, Diane's sexually liberated persona is jarringly anachronistic, seeing as this is supposed to be 1952. I could be wrong, but I don't think young ladies were saying things like "I hope your dick falls off" back when we liked Ike. Besides being out of time, the play has little sense of place. An initial reference to ice skating is about the only indication that the characters are residents of "Little Rhody."
As for Jeannie, she's the kind of eccentricity-laden caricature Neil Simon has been creating since Felix Unger, and a little of her goes a long way. One's disbelief has to be cryogenically suspended to think Russ would prefer plain, storky, quirky Jeannie to sly, buxom, sexy Diane, even for a minute.
Fat Freddy, by contrast, is a likeable old fox, as he says himself, and it's a treat to see Jerry Russell shedding his customary director's role to play the moribund mobster. As much charm and brio as Russell brings to the part, however, we've probably all seen too many Martin Scorsese movies to accept the old stereotype of the mafioso with a heart of gold anymore. Though there are brief flashes of menace beneath Freddy's crusty charm, in the end he's more lovable coot than killer.
These frequently occurring distractions prevent one from fully embracing this amusing but derivative comedy. Its message--that you can rearrange what appears to be your fate through imagination and chutzpa--comes wrapped in the rhythms of sitcom one-liners and Neil Simon pastiche. Like Fat Freddy himself, it's smooth, funny, but ultimately manipulative.
And for the kiddies, there's always the Dallas Children's Theater. The DCT, one of the most respected children's theaters in the country, also is mounting a world premiere this month. Penned by actress and award-winning playwright Linda Dougherty, Jack and The Giant Beanstalk is about a sexually abused boy who imagines he has enormous phallic powers, symbolized by an engorged plant, that allow him to ascend to the level of his father (the giant) and to kill him, thus liberating the child and his mother, for whom he has Oedipal desires.
Just kidding. Though this is a slightly fleshed-out version of the old fairy tale, it conspicuously lacks the Freudian element, thank God. Instead, it brings to the fore the traditional strengths of the DCT--elaborate production values and enthusiastic acting.
Even kids raised on Nintendo and Star Wars videos shouldn't get restless during this production, held on the spacious stage at El Centro College downtown. It features sword fights (wooden swords that don't cut), a storm at sea, a slice of gigantic bread, a guy in a chicken suit, and the biggest pair of boots in Texas. Whatever monies the DCT is collecting from its corporate sponsors is definitely winding up on the stage.