Painful With Drawl

Just OK, Tulsa Lovechild sags under TV gimmicks; DTC's Glass Menagerie goes limp with Southern angst

Each scene in The Life and Times of Tulsa Lovechild, now onstage at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, is introduced with a cutesy caption projected on a screen. "Somewhere in Wyoming," it'll say in white Courier font on a black background, or "Busted flat in Babylon." Tennessee Williams first used this visual device in The Glass Menagerie in 1944, but think Frasier not Williams in the way Lovechild playwright Greg Owens does it. Lovechild is a new play by a young writer who has spent countless hours absorbing the one-note plots and predictable cadences of TV's situation comedies and too little time parsing the finer points of plotting, dialogue and character in the great works of Williams or other titans of the American stage. Owens, of Bozeman, Montana, writes theater lite.

Lovechild doesn't really want to be a 2 1/2-hour two-act stage play anyway. It wants to be a 96-minute indie movie shot on video, starring Janeane Garofalo, Brendan Fraser and a few big-sky stretches of highway between L.A. and Oklahoma. The characters in Lovechild are as shallow and cliché as they come. The play's dozens of scenes sound teleplay-length, many with just a few lines of dialogue. Locations jump from a motel lobby to a cafe to a guy driving a huge piece of farm machinery down the interstate and back again. Flashbacks and monologues abound (in plays like these, everybody kicks down the fourth wall), and a couple of ghosts walk among the living. Perhaps this has ended up as a theater piece because there's not quite enough conflict or originality in the story to make it a marketable movie. I'd bet money Owens entered it in Project Greenlight.

Redolent of the writings of Tom Robbins, David Sedaris, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen and Andre Codrescu, Lovechild sends its title character (played by Stephanie Young), a cynical woman on the other side of 30, on a cross-country jaunt to take her dead mother's ashes back to the motel outside Tulsa where the daughter was born. Along the way, Tulsa Lovechild (her parents were '60s hippies) attracts oddballs the way a cotton sock finds cockleburs: a B-actor named Ed Caribou (Mark Nutter) on the lam from his lousy TV series; a gun-wielding Nebraska beauty queen (Andra Laine) and her knucklehead boyfriend Clyde (Erik Knapp); and a pair of adult conjoined twins (Linda Comess, Summer Selby) running from a religious cult leader named Reverend Melvin (Halim Jabbour). All end up at Bob's Motel, Bob being a Russian émigré (Scott Latham) who was present at Tulsa's birth in 1968.

Andra Laine as one of many oddball characters in Tulsa Lovechild
Andra Laine as one of many oddball characters in Tulsa Lovechild

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continues at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas through November 22. Call 214-828-0094.

On the screen, all this would flip by in briskly edited collages of quirky characters and sunlit setups. But this is live theater, where jump-cuts are impossible, so any hints of comic timing in Lovechild go toes-up as the audience endures clunky set changes between all those short scenes. In the dark we hear noisy rumblings of set pieces and the scuttlings of actors on and off the small CTD stage. Lights come up, a couple of characters say a few goofy things, then blackout and another long set switch. The interruptions start to feel so much like commercial breaks, the audience stares up at the overhead screen expecting to see ads for Jared from Subway or the purple pill called Nexium.

Scenic designer Randel Wright has done a masterful job with his sliding jigsaw puzzle set for Lovechild, a series of tall, movable panels sporting photorealistic cloud-pocked skies and flat horizons. The too-murky lighting by Jason Foster hardly does it justice. But no matter how clever its set, in a theater Lovechild loses the essence of what it really is. Crammed onto a stage, it's nothing but a misplaced road picture acted out in cardboard cars that remain stationary against painted flats. (Love that giant fake tractor, though.)

Wright's set turns out to be far more memorable than the play's title character, Tulsa Lovechild. She is in nearly every scene, and her rhythms set the pace of the evening, yet she's not the most interesting person in the play (that would be Ed Caribou). It's doubly disappointing to find Stephanie Young, pretty good in two previous roles at CTD, sleepwalking as Tulsa. When she's not looking bored and exhausted, Young is slouchy and grim-faced, doing the tough, political Janeane Garofalo we've come to dislike instead of the bittersweet comic heroine from The Truth About Cats and Dogs. We find no reason to embrace Young's Tulsa or to care about her quest to find peace. That makes it hard to stay interested in her as the scenes pile up. She also has just one half-funny line: "Tulsa...that spells 'a slut' backwards."

There's not a surfeit of outstanding acting in Lovechild, but Mark Nutter gives Ed, the lunky actor character, some lively sparks of energy and a nice jolt of pure-vanilla sex appeal. Scott Latham is OK as Bob, the Russian motel owner who serves as narrator for the play, but the guttural Codrescu accent he adopts grows annoying by the second hour. Knapp and Laine earn a few chuckles as the farmer and the beauty queen, overacting the hick stuff so wildly they seem headed for Hazzard County.

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