Secrets and Lanais

Funny what a hot day and cold booze will bring out in people. Some hard truths, for one thing. And in James McLure's paired one-acts, Lone Star and Laundry and Bourbon, now playing for the second time in two years at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, the combination of humidity and hard liquor evokes humor so poignant and authentic it's hard to laugh at them too loudly for fear of insulting the characters.

Good comedies are like that, so reflective of real life that the funny bits make us ache a little. These are two good comedies. Set in the mid-1970s, McLure's plays look into the troubled lives of six residents of Maynard, Texas, one of those blip-on-the-highway burgs where everybody knows everybody's bidness. Lone Star is about the men: handsome Roy, a former high school hot thang now suffering terrible effects of a two-year tour in "Vit-nam," as he calls it; Roy's younger brother, Ray, a sweet but simple tag-along; and Roy's longtime nemesis, Cletis "Skeeter" Fullernoy, a skittish pencil-neck ticking away life at the appliance store. In Laundry and Bourbon, we meet the women: Roy's and Cletis' significant others, the much put-upon Elizabeth and the social-climbing Amy Lee; plus drop-in visitor Hattie, a harried mother of three with a powerful hankering for afternoon highballs.

Each play places its characters outside. The men gather one starry summer night amid the busted car seats and empty oil drums behind Angel's Bar, a honky-tonk where the voices of Hank and Willie drift out of the jukebox and onto the thin, dry breeze. Roy and Ray, played by Ashley Wood and Joey Oglesby, swig cold longnecks and wonder out loud why nobody hears coyotes howling anymore.

Ray begs Roy to go back inside to drink. "It's nice in there," says little brother.

"What do I want to go in there for? It's just a juke joint with a lot a sluts and rednecks who want to break your nose for you," says Roy.

Ray: "But that's your kinda place, Roy."

Roy: "Normally, yeah. But not tonight."

In those few lines we learn important things about these guys. And the more they drink, the more we find out, including some revelations about who slept with Roy's wife while he was in the service and what's happened to his beloved 1959 pink T-bird convertible. The car is the unseen star of both one-acts, a symbol of eternal youth, wild beauty, sweet memories and big dreams.

Lone Star is a terrific little play, with shades of The Last Picture Show in its depiction of thickening men in their 30s trying to understand why life now tastes so sour. Everybody in Texas knows lovable losers such as Roy or Ray, probably as a member of the family. A Cletis, too. He's the geekola cousin from two counties away or the twerp who married your sister and brought just enough money with him to lord it over the rest of the clan. Played by David Plunkett at CTD, Cletis is Barney Fife with an extra year of junior college and entrée at the country club.

Good as this production is, it follows CTD's pattern of revisiting successful shows a little too soon (their upcoming season brings back The Last Night of Ballyhoo and Love Letters). Their previous staging of the McLure plays was a critical and audience favorite and is still fresh in the memory for some. It's hard not to make comparisons. Ashley Wood stomps his boots as Roy but can't come close to the heartbreaking, heavy-shouldered sadness of actor Mark Nutter, who was CTD's previous Roy. Wood is a pleasant enough actor, but after a series of starring parts on local stages this year, including the lead in Theatre Three's The Devil's Disciple, he's still unaware of certain actor-y tics, including his annoying habit of running his hands through his wavy hair. Nutter owned the part of Roy (he wasn't available to reprise the part). Wood just seems to be subletting.

Directed by Cynthia Hestand, Lone Star's best work is by Oglesby as Ray, who now comes off as a little less dumb and a little more worldly-wise than Roy. You can hear it in the way Ray carefully works into the story of what happened to the T-bird. Oglesby's so good, the balance of the laughs (and the aches) go his direction.

In Laundry and Bourbon, Sue Loncar and Marisa Diotalevi are back as Hattie and Amy Lee, joined now by an Elizabeth played by the wonderfully wan Diane Worman (co-star of Kitchen Dog's Bug last fall). Gulping Jack Daniel's like Kool-Aid, the women sit in Roy and Elizabeth's backyard and absent-mindedly fold baskets of sun-dried T-shirts while gossiping about their Maynard neighbors.

Musing about one young wife who's inconveniently pregnant, devoutly Baptist (despite the drinking) Amy Lee is horrified to hear she's considering abortion: "Where she'd get it, I don't know. She can't get one in Maynard. She'd have to go to someplace that didn't have any morality. Like Dallas or Houston."

Among the three, Diotalevi's the one to watch in this half of the evening. With every sip of hooch, she gets a little wobblier on her pink high heels and her consonants slur jush a little more obvioushly. Hilarious.

Loncar's perfectly cast as the brassy blonde. Worman, peering out to the horizon in search of Roy's pink T-bird, floats in and out of the boozy babble, like a woman with a heavy load on her heart.

On opening night, because of the illness earlier in the day of one of the actresses, the order of the plays was reversed, putting Lone Star first. It worked. Seeing Roy's story earlier and finding out, long before the women characters do, what happens to him and his car, allows the audience into what's behind the dithery goings-on in Laundry and Bourbon. Also, this time around, Laundry's the one with the stronger actors. But it probably doesn't matter all that much storywise which play goes where. By the end of the night, bottles emptied, secrets spilled, it has all come out in the wash.

It's backyards again in Icarus, a surreal drama by Puerto Rican playwright Edwin Sanchez getting its area premiere by Amphibian Stage Productions at TCU's Hays Theater. If only the play were as beautiful as the work of scenic designer Cameron Anderson. The set is a visual poem: a wide, deep swath of real sand topped with two weather-beaten porches set against a ceiling-high painting of an enormous white wing fluttering over a stairway to the sky.

In front of that magnificent scenery unfolds a silly, choppy story of four misfits who wander into a deserted beach house. Brother and sister Primitivo and Altagracia (played by Carman Lacitiva and Katya Campbell) fantasize about being movie stars. But he's in a wheelchair and she sports facial scars. Their friend Mr. Ellis (Stephen Balantzian) lives under the porch and talks to a stuffed cat. A stranger, Beau (Charlie Sandlan), arrives and won't remove his ski mask because of what he claims are car accident injuries.

What happens is a Liza-Minnelli-in-Junie-Moon plot about damaged souls. More engaging are brief flashes of a neighbor, a Norma Desmond-like recluse named "The Gloria" (the remarkable Anne-Lynn Kettles), who wanders out to hallucinate about a glamorous comeback. In the second act she wafts off her deck and onto the beach, where she speaks of beauty as currency and the elusiveness of fame. Every one of The Gloria's brief scenes hints at another, better play--just not the one she's in.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner