Scorched earth

It says a lot about New Theatre Company's collective skills that a play about boredom should come across so forcefully. Yet Keith Reddin's Dallas premiere of Nebraska twiddles its thumbs with such homicidal intensity, the thwarted lives of the various couples it portrays are rendered from the inside out, all their external colorless detail a sheer coverslip for passions that escape in unflattering but instructive ways.

A critic once said of Harold Pinter that you can tell what his plays are about by whatever subject his characters are avoiding. This thought struck me as I sat through a tightly executed, entertaining opening-night performance. Nebraska concerns itself primarily with two couples living on a military base, where nuclear missiles are housed in silos under the flat, rolling plains. There are similarly lethal resentments lying just underneath these restless officers and their military wives, though they're rarely discussed--until they explode in the marriage bed. You get the sense they do this to blow off steam accumulated by living atop nuclear weapons that no longer have a designated enemy.

The stage hasn't investigated the aftermath of the Cold War the way movies and books have. Playwright Keith Reddin brandishes a perfectly recognizable and excruciating human dilemma. Call it boredom, ennui, or stagnation; everyone's experienced it, but for many men and women who live, work, and socialize in the insulated universe known as the armed forces, the experience has become a defining one in their lives. It just so happens that the various intoxicants--alcohol, adultery--they employ to dull the edgy motionlessness are among the favorite dramatic devices of playwrights around the world.

What's impressive about Reddin's script--and Bruce Coleman's direction of a sturdy cast featuring New Theatre's assistant artistic director Charlotte Akin and managing director Jim Jorgensen--is how every scene (there are 10 in the first act, eight in the second) is mounted like a mini-opera of mundaneness. A screen to the right of the stage projects the title of each scene in the first act, and it's usually the most inconsequential part of the conversation being exchanged at that moment. The anxious impulse of these stranded adults to get up and do something with their lives lifts the best performances here into repression's soaring upper register.

Nebraska introduces us to the newest couple on the military base, gung-ho Dean (Jim Jorgensen) and his go-along-to-get-along wife Julie (Lorie J. Clark). Dean is in charge of silo operations with a master bullshitter named Henry (Earl Browning III in a knockout performance). Although this amounts to little more than the pair of them playing bored watchdog at the switches, he takes his job so seriously that he bristles every time Julie refers to his responsibility as a job (it's a duty). She, meanwhile, quietly despairs over having flunked her driver's test--again. She projects her sense of immobility onto that fairly innocuous failure, and lets it eat away at her.

Dean and Julie interact in sundry ways with Dean's superior officer, Jack (T.A. Taylor), and his acid-tongued wife, Carol (Charlotte Akin). This is the veteran army couple, and each partner has chosen various means to salve the wounds of disruption and dislocation that fester in long periods of waiting: Jack submerges himself in classical music and a desperate need to be liked by his junior officers, while Carol spends time drinking alone at the base canteen. There she meets Jack, with whom she entangles herself in an affair despite the fact that she openly scorns his pickup story about idolizing Roy Orbison. Their crashing incompatibility only makes the "romance" more desperate, the anticlimax of it more reflective of the lives they led before this meeting.

On opening night, a couple of the actors spent time searching for the right key in which to play their characters. Jim Jorgensen and Lorie J. Clark entered their first emotional scenes with what seemed like trepidation, to the extent that Jorgensen underplayed and Clark overplayed. But their occasional discordance resolved itself by this production's scrumptious centerpiece, an outdoor barbecue thrown by Jack and Carol to which all the attendees are ordered to come. In her one scene as the girlfriend of Dean's cocky pal Henry, Kim Newman contributes mightily to the most perfect stage evocation of a lousy party I've ever seen. With the chatter as dry as soup mix and the rock music blaring hilarious background commentary to the frustrated proceedings ("You Can't Always Get What You Want" by the Stones), the scene is a triumph for all involved.

Two actors deserve special notice for helping fuel Nebraska's drive to its appropriately understated final tragedy. As Henry, the aforementioned Earl Browning III inadvertently triggers this bloody outcome, and Browning has laid convincing groundwork for his betrayal of a fellow officer; his charismatic turn as a braggart had the audience eating out of his hand. During an early scene, he practically hypnotizes a gullible young officer (Marco E. Salinas) with stories of the very real responsibility he would face should the nuclear missiles he watchguards ever be deployed. Browning gives you the sense his character doesn't believe his own line (scary when you think about it), but the message is clear--the entire U.S. "peacekeeping" arsenal that constituted the Cold War nuclear buildup is now being used to scam beers.

I didn't recall until Nebraska was almost over that T.A. Taylor had given one of the best performances last year that I've ever seen on a Dallas stage. In New Theatre Company's revamped version of Clifford Odets' Rocket to the Moon, he played a man several decades older than himself with very little makeup, applying seamless mannerisms atop a soulful portrayal of a man who couldn't get enough of life. In Nebraska, Taylor as Jack has had all too much of life as an automaton, so he expresses himself by getting drunk to the music of Wagner and other European composers. Taylor's performance is deceptively simple, but its multiple layers reveal themselves as Nebraska rolls forward. Jack isn't just bored by post-Soviet life in the American military, he'd never fully given his heart to the anti-Communist cause in the first place, we suspect. Denied even that straw villain, he's consumed by his own displacement.

Nebraska runs through May 31. Call (214) 871-

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jimmy Fowler