In his earlier plays, Killer Joe and Bug, writer Tracy Letts plundered the troubled lives of angry brutes and paranoid meth addicts, the sort of creepsters who dabble in homemade porn, homegrown reefer and homicide. So what's he doing wasting his time and ours with the khaki-bland problems of Man From Nebraska?
This Letts drama, now playing at Kitchen Dog Theater, offers a study in numbness. Ken Carpenter, a droopy, soft-bellied insurance salesman, is married to Nancy, a dowdy gal in dresses drab as gravy. They sleepwalk through life in Lincoln, Nebraska, driving wordlessly to church, forking silently at cafeteria meatloaf, slumping side by side through nightly viewings of Wheel of Fortune. For Nancy, this is happiness. But Ken, poor thing, quietly rages. He wakes one night in a panic and kneels, weeping, at the bathroom sink. "I don't believe in God!" he wails. "I don't understand the stars. The stars in the sky don't make sense to me."
Off he goes into a half-blown midlife crisis that doesn't make much sense either. With barely a toodle-oo to Nancy (played at Kitchen Dog by Sara Weeks), Ken (Spencer Prokop) hops a plane for London. On the flight he meets outré divorcee Pat (Diane Worman), who talks dirty and hits on him hard. They rendezvous later in his hotel room but when push turns to Pat shoving Ken into the sack, he can't follow through. Instead, he weeps some more.
Ken craves something new; he just can't decide what. Playwright Letts also can't decide as he leads Ken through a maze of less-than-amazing encounters with British oddballs. Ken strikes up an awkward friendship with a pretty hotel bartender named Tamyra (Charnell R. Bratton), who drags him off to the flat she shares with Harry (David Goodwin), a twitchy, talkative artist of no importance.
Meanwhile, back in Middle America, Nancy is left to discourage the advances of her pastor's randy old dad (Jerry Crow). Back and forth go the scenes—London to Lincoln, hippity-hop across the pond. What might have worked fine as jump-cuts in a so-so movie script make for cumbersome transitions on a stage. Each change of locale requires noisy hustling of heavy furniture on and off and on and off. At the opening night performance, two tall sliding panels on scenic designer John Hobbie's set balked, creating more time-consuming obstacles to already overlong scene changes.
There is no big wahoo moment in Man From Nebraska, no breathtaking turning point or astounding revelation. During his six-week stay in London, Ken tries sculpting clay under the hazy tutelage of Harry, but that doesn't come to much. Some pointedly anti-American political speechifying eats up time in the second act. Then a phone call about a death in the family gives Ken a reason to fly home. That's about it plot-wise.
So Kitchen Dog Theater limps through a disappointing opener to its 17th season. This production was fraught early on with troubles beyond its muddled script. Original director Jonathan Taylor had to drop out because of illness, leaving Kitchen Dog's co-artistic directors Tina Parker and Christopher Carlos to step in to finish the staging. Opening night was postponed a week, but the show still looks unfinished and under-rehearsed. The paint was wet on the set at the performance reviewed. The cast lacked chemistry and hadn't found their timing, sometimes skidding into each other's lines.
And perhaps hiring bland actors to play dull characters isn't the best idea. As Ken, Prokop suffers from a serious case of beige. He's Mr. Cellophane, so unremarkable it's hard to remember what he looks like. As wife Nancy, husky-voiced Weeks displays dead eyes and a flat delivery. Carrie Bourne, as Ken and Nancy's plain-faced daughter Ashley, goes shrill in the arguments, then blends right back into the background. Jerry Crow is OK as Bud, the old widower on the make, but he arrives so far into the play, he can't save it.
London barmaid Tamyra's Cockney accent is beyond the skills of Bratton. Goodwin resorts to familiar moves as Tamyra's bohemian beau. This actor is expert at playing wigged-out junkies, so at least he brings a spark of humor to an otherwise anesthetic evening.
If Letts was trying for a new Death of a Salesman with Man From Nebraska, about the only thing he got right was the main character's sense that there has to be more to life than going through the motions. That's true of playwriting too. Great dramas do more hard work than this one. Arthur Miller created a transcendent masterpiece about one little man's tragic search for validation. The Letts play gives up too easily, sending Ken back from his journey to Oz as a man who abandons his quest. Ho-hum, there's no place like home. He begs Nancy for forgiveness and weeps in her lap. All's well again in the land of mom, the flag and Applebee's.
As the lights go down at the end of this wearying slog through one man's mushy meltdown, we're left to believe that Ken is content to step back into his wardrobe of Dockers, his job pushing papers, his Sundays singing hymns and eating creamed corn. He and the playwright come up short of a breakthrough. The brief existential crisis is over. No more questioning the stars.
Terry Dobson's autobiographical musical My Own Private Diva gets a return run at Theatre Too! starting October 5. I reviewed it last year and found great charm in it. Dobson, a Theatre Three veteran, sings, plays the piano and jokes about growing up gay in Slapout, Alabama. But I won't be seeing it again. Here's why.
In mid-August, I descended the 27 steps to Theatre Too!, the space below Theatre Three in the Quadrangle, to see Blind Date by South American playwright Mario Diament. The play, what I saw of it, was pretty awful, but the experience of sitting through its 90-minute first act proved to be a phobic's nightmare.
The underground theater is small and close anyway, comfortably seating only about 80 people. The night Blind Date opened, it was so overcrowded director Jac Alder joked in his pre-show remarks about needing a can opener to pry everyone out.
Not funny. There's only one exit door in Theatre Too! and on this night, a piece of the set was placed in front of it. In a personal emergency, one would have to cross the stage in full view of the actors and audience to get out to that long staircase to freedom. In a real emergency, we'd all be doomed. (The single exit and lack of handicap access keep Dallas' top theater director, René Moreno, who uses a wheelchair, from working down there.)
The show started that night, and the air conditioning went off. This theater does this, upstairs and down, because clanky blowers drown out dialogue. But this was a hot night and within minutes, it was a steam bath in there. The actors, some in three-piece suits, were soaked.
Half an hour in, I heard the splat of vomit from the back row. A sick lady and her friend climbed down and tiptoed across the stage, behind the set and out the exit. Oh, how I wanted to follow.
Another 30 minutes went by and the A/C teased on briefly, then off again. People were fanning themselves with programs. I was sweating from my earlobes.
No air. Heatstroke imminent. Elderly lead actor Hugh Feagin seemed oblivious to the audience's discomfort, though we sat only inches away. He spoke lines so slowly it was like his batteries were running down.
There was no paying attention to anything in this boxcar. I was in fight or flight mode. At long last, intermission came. I was up and out, taking steps three at a time. The 90-plus evening heat hit like a cool breeze.
That's it. An underground theater with one exit, no A/C and an excruciatingly long, bad play spelled the end of my attendance, at least for the foreseeable future, at Theatre Too! My own private diva needs room to breathe.