Like many a drinking binge, James McLure's evening of companion comedies Lone Star and Laundry and Bourbon starts slowly, picks up momentum and ends with a boisterous, boozy crescendo. Now onstage in a cracking production directed by Cynthia Hestand at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, the pair of related one-acts takes a peek into the complicated lives of six lifetime residents of fictional Maynard, Texas, circa 1971.
First we meet the women, folding sun-dried clothes and gradually getting soused in Laundry and Bourbon. Over a long, hot afternoon, Hattie (Sue Loncar), her best friend Elizabeth (Lyn Montgomery) and their sassy nemesis from high school days, Amy-Lee (Marisa Diotalevi), sit and drink on Elizabeth's back porch. They reminisce, argue, gossip, whine and finally, drunker than Cooter Brown, fight like wet cats in a bag over, of all things, the complicated rules of mah-jongg.
As the liquor is poured out, so are the home truths. Elizabeth has just learned she's pregnant, and her troubled husband, Roy (we meet him later in Lone Star), is AWOL. Every few minutes, she pops out of her lawn chair and strains to see if Roy's beloved 1959 pink Thunderbird convertible might be rolling up the road. Hattie is less than sympathetic about the missing Roy, who, three years past active duty in Vietnam, has nightmares and can't hold a job. "That man's done more wanderin' than Lewis and Clark," Hattie clucks.
Of the two plays, Laundry and Bourbon is the slighter and more predictable, but it does deliver rewarding surprises. The first half offers Hattie and Elizabeth jawing aimlessly about TV game shows, boys they dated back when and Hattie's impatience with her three unruly rug-rats. "The main reason I come over here is to get away from the kids and get bombed," Hattie says, throwing back a tumbler of hooch. "Livin' with kids is like livin' with midgets."
Things liven up considerably, however, with the arrival of Amy-Lee, bossy wife of Cletis, the local appliance dealer. She drops by to deliver parts for a busted air conditioner but uses the opportunity to hawk five-dollar tickets to the Baptists' pancake supper, a gathering Hattie proclaims is anything but a good time. "Well, there are very few fun things a Baptist can do without risking damnation," Amy-Lee answers piously. Then she turns to Elizabeth and adds, "I never listen to Hattie when she's talking like a sharecropper's daughter."
Amy-Lee may be a pancake-pushing parvenu, but it turns out her background and her mouth are just as trashy as Hattie's. The longer the girls jibber-jabber and refill their glasses, the more dirt the snockered Amy-Lee spills about her neighbors in Maynard (which, come to think of it, could be Tuna's twin city). The town is full of cheatin' hearts, including, possibly, Roy's.
Diotalevi, hair silo-high as Amy-Lee, turns what could be a cliché, cornpone role into a hilarious tour de force. Every line, every curl of her lip gets a laugh. Her co-stars appear willing to eat Diotalevi's dust and let her steal the show. Smart move. Loncar is always bigger than life and louder than the noon whistle in any role, but she's funnier duking it out with Diotalevi than in any previous CTD performance (Loncar's the boss at this theater, by the way). Montgomery makes Elizabeth a little too meek next to the other ladies, but she has a sweet moment or two talking about how much she loves the wayward Roy. She's the yin to the others' twangy yangs.
Laundry and Bourbon wets the whistle nicely for what happens in Lone Star (named for the beer, not the state). Here we meet the men we've heard about in the first play, and they don't disappoint. It's just after midnight, probably the same day as before, and Roy (Mark Nutter) and his squirt of a little brother Ray (Todd Terry) are swigging longnecks on the porch behind Angel's Bar, the kind of no-frills roadhouse where Hank Williams and Elvis dominate the jukebox and rips in the screen door get rusty before they get repaired. (Scenic designer Randel Wright's set, which evokes well-chosen images of West Texas on a summer night, makes such a magical transformation from the first play to the second that it gets its own well-deserved round of applause.)
Through beer goggles, Roy looks back at his haunting wartime experiences, a game Ray calls "playing Vietnam." Roy taunts his younger brother for not serving in the military. "When you're too stupid to get in the Army, you're too dumb to breathe," Roy says. For a while, we think he might be right, especially when Ray, tearing open a candy bar, asks, "You ever notice how a Baby Ruth looks a lot like a turd?"
As the brothers trade yarns about long-ago girlfriends and teenage road trips in Roy's adored passion wagon, McLure's dialogue takes on a familiar Andy Taylor/Barney Fife rhythm, a drawling back-and-forth punctuated with get-down funny punch lines. "Nipples are like bicycles," Roy tells his brother. "Once you learn, you never forget how." Line for line, Lone Star is at least 10 times funnier than the earlier play. The performances are a notch better on this side of intermission, too.
Mark Nutter, playing Roy, is a handsome, solidly built actor with a way of throwing himself around with complete physical abandon. Whether he's howling drunkenly at the full moon or leaping off a waist-high bench, landing with a resounding thud, he's in the moment 100 percent. Nutter knows just when to play to the rafters or hold back and give a line a more subtle, toss-away delivery. His Roy is a flawed but lovable galoot. Good work all the way.
Same goes for Todd Terry as Ray, a simple man who idolizes his older brother and enthusiastically listens to the same stories Ray's told him a thousand times. McLure, an SMU classmate of Crimes of the Heart playwright Beth Henley, has a finely tuned ear for how brothers communicate. Whether they're arguing, teasing or sharing heartbreaking secrets, Roy and Ray sound right and real.
Lone Star's third character, Cletis, husband of the pushy Amy-Lee, is played with appropriately Wally Cox-ish squeak by Ron Alderman, who shows up for one important moment that has a big impact on the lives of Roy and Ray.
All-out funny and loud as it is, Lone Star wraps up quietly in a moment of understanding and forgiveness. Knowing the characters as well as we do by this point in the evening, we imagine Roy sobering up and returning home to Elizabeth, where he'll hear the good news about the baby. Life will surely be better for them from now on. It says something about the quality of McLure's writing and the depth of the performances at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas that by the end of the two plays we've grown to like these folks so much that we hope good things for their future.
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