As small, intense, pull-your-hair-out comedies, the new plays Coyote and Collapse have a lot in common. Coyote, playing a few more performances at Nouveau 47's tiny theater at the Magnolia Lounge in Fair Park, puts us out in the Arizona desert with a couple of those trigger-happy "Minutemen" militia guys who patrol the border. Collapse, onstage at Kitchen Dog Theater, happens up in Minneapolis, where a young couple is on the verge of losing everything — jobs, home, marriage, their minds — after suffering a series of personal setbacks. Both plays, at their cores, are about irrational reactions to current cultural shifts in America. It's contemporary theater as inspired, in part, by the blatherings of AM talk radio.
The scripts have connections to real-life events. Kevin Kautzman wrote Coyote after the passage of Arizona's proof-of-citizenship legislation, giving the state's law enforcement officers the right to demand proof of legal residency from anyone they suspect might not be red-blooded Amurrikin.
Kautzman's main characters, new friends Luke (played by Stephen Witkowicz) and Vince (Art Peden), are already sitting in the rusty red truck parked center stage as audience members are taking their seats. Luke is new to the late-night shift on Minuteman duty, paired up with Vince, an old-timer who seems to care less about stopping the influx of illegals from Mexico than in draining a pint of whiskey and shooting the shit till the sun comes up. Suspicious of Luke's newfound dedication to the "white pride" movement, Vince tests the young man, making him repeat racial slurs and asking him about his sex life. "God burns fags in hell!" Vince declares. Luke doesn't flinch, but he doesn't really seem like the type to buy into Vince's hatemongering or agree with his fringe-y beliefs in a New World Order, the Rothschild conspiracy or the notion that iPhones are somehow connected to the forbidden fruit from the Garden of Eden and therefore may be tools of Satan.
The first half of Coyote lets us eavesdrop on the men as they pass a night under the desert stars out by the truck. Luke and Vince swap stories and take turns taking long slugs out of Vince's flask. The drunker Vince gets, the sadder and more personal his revelations. He nursed his beloved wife of 30 years through her fatal illness, but admits to bouts of infidelity, including visits to a Juarez whorehouse. The guys get bored and engage in some gunplay, firing bullets at coyotes up in the nearby hills. And then, just before the lights go down on the play's talky first act, Vince stumbles toward the back of the truck to relieve himself and Luke does something that turns the whole situation on its ear.
Who Luke actually is and why he's putting up with a mean old bigot like Vince is the crux of the action-packed second half of Coyote. Consider that human traffickers are nicknamed "coyotes" and you get a hint of what's to come in this taut little dramedy.
Directed by Donny Covington, actors Peden and Witkowicz (younger brother of top local actor Brian) hit just the right balance of tension and comic timing as the play builds toward its startling conclusion. Peden's gravelly voice and rickety posture make Vince alternately pathetic and terrifying. Not many actors capture the little subtleties of gradual inebriation so well as Peden.
Kautzman gives the actors pitch-perfect dialogue to play with, too, catching the differences in vocabulary and cadence between men of different generations and educations. This writer knows how to schedule a pause and when a character should pull a weapon. If some of the second act starts to feel tedious, it's only because we grow eager to know how this odd little thriller will turn out. Kautzman keeps us guessing who the good and bad guy is right to the end.
The real-life event behind Collapse, written by Kitchen Dog company member Allison Moore, was the 2007 collapse of the Interstate 35 bridge in Minneapolis. In the play, David (Michael Federico) is one of the rush-hour drivers who survived the sudden plunge into the Mississippi River. Suffering from PTSD, a stomach ulcer and acute alcoholism, David also is contending with a baby-craving wife, Hannah (Leah Spillman), and her flighty sister Susan (JaQuai Wade), who has shown up on their doorstep, jobless.
After a jokey opening scene — are they or are they not engaging in backdoor sex? — Collapse snowballs into problems galore, with each character caught in separate disasters that could ruin some or all of their lives. Susan might have become an unwitting drug mule for a mobster named "Bulldog." Hannah, raging with fertility hormones, attends a 12-step meeting and has a one-night affair with a sex addict (Bill Lengfelder, wonderful at affecting an unctuous Southern drawl). David decides to face his fears by climbing a bridge, only to freeze halfway up. (Clare Floyd DeVries' terrific scenery includes a living room tilted on an angle, an intimate coffee shop and the suggestion of a span of concrete overpass.)
There is screaming, crying, vomiting and canoodling in Collapse, a play that starts to sag a little under the weight of its overlapping themes toward the end. Playwright Moore has many things to say about the culture of recovery and the psychological repercussions of the current financial crisis, as well as the long-lasting effects of an event like the bridge disaster (hey, at least it wasn't a 9/11 play). For people like Hannah and David, it's all spiraling into one end-of-the-world scenario. She copes by making out with a stranger. He numbs himself with beer. "When people know you're an alcoholic, you don't have to explain anything," David says.
The high energy of the cast propels Collapse through its swift 80 intermission-less minutes. Federico, the closest Dallas theater has to a Paul Giamatti, roils with repressed pain. He also hangs off the side of that bridge for about 20 minutes. Impressive. Spillman, always good at playing pinched hysterics, works up a convincing case of the crazies. Newcomer Wade has a wildness about her that offsets the others' knottiness.
Like so many of the new plays Kitchen Dog presents, this one is not great dramatic literature, not wildly original or witty, but satisfying all the same. Director Christopher Carlos and his actors deserve a lot of credit for keeping the tone of Collapse light enough to allow us to laugh without guilt at its four troubled souls.