The years have been kind to The Oldest Living Graduate. The last play in Preston Jones' Texas Trilogy holds up even better than the second in the series, Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander. Contemporary Theatre of Dallas did a dandy Lu Ann last season. They have a not-so-dandy Graduate running now and will attempt the first play in the trio, The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia, next year.
These are great plays—that's evident even when the acting and directing in a production aren't up to snuff. When the trilogy premiered to critical acclaim at Dallas Theater Center in the early 1970s, Jones, who wrote the first script while working in the DTC box office, was hailed as the next Tennessee Williams. But the trilogy flopped on Broadway, and Jones was dead by the age of 43, not living long enough to live up to or live down the lofty comparison.
It's nice to see and hear Graduate again, even in a version that doesn't know what it's doing most of the time. Jones wrote tight, all-out funny scenes that lead to small, quiet moments that touch deep emotions. His characters depict real Texas types, but lovingly and in specific detail. His dialogue has that easy-on-the-ear patois of hard West Texas drawls, mixed with the playwright's colorful verbal inventions. Like this from Graduate's title character, Colonel J.C. Kinkaid, the last surviving member of the 1905 class of Galveston's Mirabeau B. Lamar Military Academy: "Not worth it. Not worth a bumble-dickin', goddamned thing! It ain't no honor to be the oldest living anything. Oldest living graduate, oldest living Indian, oldest living armadillo, oldest living nuthin', 'cause that means you're all alone!"
Kinkaid is supposed to be about 75 when the play takes place in 1962 over a couple of blistering summer days and nights in fictional Bradleyville, Texas (somewhere near Big Spring). In a wheelchair from injuries suffered in World War I, which claimed most of his schoolmates, the Colonel rattles around the sprawling ranch house he shares with his 42-year-old son Floyd and boozy daughter-in-law Maureen. They're childless because, as the Colonel explains, Maureen is "as barren as a 30-year-old ewe."
Floyd's already hit oil on the Kinkaid spread, so there's plenty of Giant-type money to spend on cars and "Neiman and Marcus" fur coats. But Floyd aims to make another killing by parceling off his father's old lakeside property into a vacation development called "Mumford County Estates." A letter from the military school offering to honor the Colonel with a hometown ceremony—an event that could attract some of the school's top brass and a few platinum-level alumni—makes Floyd itch to convince his dad to relinquish his sentimental hold on the empty acreage.
What happens to the old man when he refuses to give up the land, or take part in the "oldest graduate" honors, is at the center of the play, so it's by-God important, as the Colonel might say, to cast the right actor for the main role. At Contemporary, the part has gone to John S. Davies, a good actor who's just all wrong for a frail, shell-shocked septuagenarian. Davies is a tall, solidly built bull of a man who looks to be about 50 in real life. His actual age isn't the problem. Randy Moore, who originated the role of Colonel Kinkaid at Dallas Theater Center three decades ago, was in his early 30s when he played it. The difference is that Moore made the audience absolutely believe he was elderly, not with elaborate makeup, but with the voice, movement and rhythms of a sickly, senile codger in the twilight of his life. He was brilliant, miles better even than Henry Fonda's Colonel in the 1980 live TV telecast of the play—and by then Fonda was sickly and old.
Davies comes at the part as if he were playing General Patton. He bellows, he roars, he throws his big arms around with a force beyond the capacity of someone who's already suffered a stroke. In the angry confrontations with Floyd, Davies gets so worked up he comes close to jumping out of the wheelchair to get in the other actor's face. Davies' version of Colonel Kinkaid is so bellicose and humorless, it's hard to like him. That throws the balance of sympathy toward Floyd, played with such perfectly subtle, low-boiling resentment by Russell DeGrazier that the production could be renamed The Son of the Oldest Living Graduate.
With Davies leading the charge, the Contemporary cast's performances take on a forced momentum that rushes them through Jones' carefully constructed speeches and steamrolls over the whole lazy West Texas-ness of the play. If only director Cynthia Hestand had allowed the actors to take more time, let a little air in between lines and just relax, it would feel so much more authentic, so much funnier, so much more Preston Jones.
Certainly, this production looks better than it sounds. The set by Kristen Richter appears to be a prop-for-prop interpretation of Jones' own description of the Kinkaids' paneled den, right down to the deer head mounted over the gun rack. Costumes by Aaron Patrick Turner hit and miss, however. Floyd and his business partner, Clarence Sickenger (Reg Platt), sport the Stetsons and boots of West Texas big shots of the era. As Maureen, Sue Loncar is stuck in a sloppily styled brunette wig and a shapeless, sleeveless dress the color of Easter chicks. Maureen's no fashion plate, but she'd never be this tacky. For whiny visitor Martha Ann Sickenger, costumer Turner puts actress Catherine Wall in a fuchsia sheath dress and pillbox hat—kind of a stretch for the summer of '62 and a too-obvious nod to the style of then-First Lady Jackie. The Colonel's shirt and boots look too crisp and youthful, and surely he'd never wear his old WWI army dress uniform jacket over jeans to meet the academy commandant.
Only in his last speech does Davies lie back to connect with the wistfulness of the dying old Colonel. Jones ends the play with a list of memories, and here again it's the playwright's voice we hear coming through: "The things ah seen and remember in this country is all gone now. Even the sounds of things is gone. That's right. Even the sounds of things. The creakin' noise the saddle used to make when we went to work of a mornin', men yellin', dogs barkin', horses stompin' and snortin' and fartin' around. A windmill clankin' in the night and cattle bawlin' from way off yonder some place..."
That's by-God beautiful.
The enormous fun and fabulous singing and dancing of the lavish Broadway tour of The Drowsy Chaperone, now at the Music Hall at Fair Park, have almost erased the hideous images of those dreary non-Equity clunkers Ring of Fire and The Wedding Singer that stunk up the big stage earlier this spring. Chaperone speaks to the musical theater queen in all of us, that secret self who knows all the lyrics to 42nd Street and can't help shuffling off to Buffalo when we hit a tap-worthy floor.
The Man in Chair (Jonathan Crombie) is our onstage guide. He's the ultimate musical fanatic, a fey fellow (with an ex-wife, surprise!) lonely for company and eager to share a recording of his favorite 1920s confection, a bouncy show by "Gable and Stein" about a nearly disastrous wedding day involving a Follies star (Andrea Chamberlain), her millionaire boyfriend (Mark Ledbetter), an inebriated chaperone (Nancy Opel), a couple of twin mobster chefs (Peter and Paul Riopelle), a foreign Lothario (James Moye) and a stage full of other characters plucked from the casts of every Prohibition-era pastiche.
As the needle hits the LP, the show comes to life in the Man's New York apartment, everyone tap-dancing from out of the fridge, the closets and the Murphy bed. It's like a giant, living pop-up book.
From the first line, spoken by the Man in total darkness—"I hate the theater"—to the last number, "As We Stumble Along," a tribute to inebriation, it's a giddy, satirical gallop through hoary musical comedy clichés past and present. As the starlet belts out "Show Off," singing over and over how she's tired of the spotlight, she's tapping, spinning, cartwheeling, twirling a baton, kicking over her head and generally making a wonderful spectacle of herself.
The Drowsy Chaperone is downright dreamy.
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