Painful With Drawl

Each scene in The Life and Times of Tulsa Lovechild, now onstage at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, is introduced with a cutesy caption projected on a screen. "Somewhere in Wyoming," it'll say in white Courier font on a black background, or "Busted flat in Babylon." Tennessee Williams first used this visual device in The Glass Menagerie in 1944, but think Frasier not Williams in the way Lovechild playwright Greg Owens does it. Lovechild is a new play by a young writer who has spent countless hours absorbing the one-note plots and predictable cadences of TV's situation comedies and too little time parsing the finer points of plotting, dialogue and character in the great works of Williams or other titans of the American stage. Owens, of Bozeman, Montana, writes theater lite.

Lovechild doesn't really want to be a 2 1/2-hour two-act stage play anyway. It wants to be a 96-minute indie movie shot on video, starring Janeane Garofalo, Brendan Fraser and a few big-sky stretches of highway between L.A. and Oklahoma. The characters in Lovechild are as shallow and cliché as they come. The play's dozens of scenes sound teleplay-length, many with just a few lines of dialogue. Locations jump from a motel lobby to a cafe to a guy driving a huge piece of farm machinery down the interstate and back again. Flashbacks and monologues abound (in plays like these, everybody kicks down the fourth wall), and a couple of ghosts walk among the living. Perhaps this has ended up as a theater piece because there's not quite enough conflict or originality in the story to make it a marketable movie. I'd bet money Owens entered it in Project Greenlight.

Redolent of the writings of Tom Robbins, David Sedaris, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen and Andre Codrescu, Lovechild sends its title character (played by Stephanie Young), a cynical woman on the other side of 30, on a cross-country jaunt to take her dead mother's ashes back to the motel outside Tulsa where the daughter was born. Along the way, Tulsa Lovechild (her parents were '60s hippies) attracts oddballs the way a cotton sock finds cockleburs: a B-actor named Ed Caribou (Mark Nutter) on the lam from his lousy TV series; a gun-wielding Nebraska beauty queen (Andra Laine) and her knucklehead boyfriend Clyde (Erik Knapp); and a pair of adult conjoined twins (Linda Comess, Summer Selby) running from a religious cult leader named Reverend Melvin (Halim Jabbour). All end up at Bob's Motel, Bob being a Russian émigré (Scott Latham) who was present at Tulsa's birth in 1968.

On the screen, all this would flip by in briskly edited collages of quirky characters and sunlit setups. But this is live theater, where jump-cuts are impossible, so any hints of comic timing in Lovechild go toes-up as the audience endures clunky set changes between all those short scenes. In the dark we hear noisy rumblings of set pieces and the scuttlings of actors on and off the small CTD stage. Lights come up, a couple of characters say a few goofy things, then blackout and another long set switch. The interruptions start to feel so much like commercial breaks, the audience stares up at the overhead screen expecting to see ads for Jared from Subway or the purple pill called Nexium.

Scenic designer Randel Wright has done a masterful job with his sliding jigsaw puzzle set for Lovechild, a series of tall, movable panels sporting photorealistic cloud-pocked skies and flat horizons. The too-murky lighting by Jason Foster hardly does it justice. But no matter how clever its set, in a theater Lovechild loses the essence of what it really is. Crammed onto a stage, it's nothing but a misplaced road picture acted out in cardboard cars that remain stationary against painted flats. (Love that giant fake tractor, though.)

Wright's set turns out to be far more memorable than the play's title character, Tulsa Lovechild. She is in nearly every scene, and her rhythms set the pace of the evening, yet she's not the most interesting person in the play (that would be Ed Caribou). It's doubly disappointing to find Stephanie Young, pretty good in two previous roles at CTD, sleepwalking as Tulsa. When she's not looking bored and exhausted, Young is slouchy and grim-faced, doing the tough, political Janeane Garofalo we've come to dislike instead of the bittersweet comic heroine from The Truth About Cats and Dogs. We find no reason to embrace Young's Tulsa or to care about her quest to find peace. That makes it hard to stay interested in her as the scenes pile up. She also has just one half-funny line: "Tulsa...that spells 'a slut' backwards."

There's not a surfeit of outstanding acting in Lovechild, but Mark Nutter gives Ed, the lunky actor character, some lively sparks of energy and a nice jolt of pure-vanilla sex appeal. Scott Latham is OK as Bob, the Russian motel owner who serves as narrator for the play, but the guttural Codrescu accent he adopts grows annoying by the second hour. Knapp and Laine earn a few chuckles as the farmer and the beauty queen, overacting the hick stuff so wildly they seem headed for Hazzard County.

Director Jamie Baker Knapp forces even more comparisons to small-screen fare by using an almost-continuous musical score under the dialogue and between each scene in The Life and Times of Tulsa Lovechild. The composers and recording artists go uncredited in the program, but the sound design by Marco E. Salinas seems to draw primarily from the guitar work of W.G. "Snuffy" Walden, known for the music on thirtysomething, West Wing and Providence. You know his stuff. At the end of a scene, when the lead character says something mildly profound, the screen goes black to the sound of Walden's yuppie flamenco. Plink, plunk, strummmmmm.

I don't remember hearing any music during Dallas Theater Center's production of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, still playing at the Kalita Humphreys Theater. But if there were a signature sound for the preview performance I reviewed, it would be a long, slow, raspy wheeze. Hoping for a definitive production of Williams' first great play, what I saw instead were overwrought caricatures of Menagerie's four exquisitely written characters. Faded Southern belle Amanda Wingfield is played as a tall flapping pelican by the robust Beth Dixon. Her immature and fragile daughter Laura, played by Jeanine Serralles, quivers like a demented child pathologically out of touch with reality. Young poet Tom Wingfield turns into a comical drunk as portrayed by loose-limbed Brandon Miller. And as Jim the "gentleman caller," Ashley Smith struts around in the candlelight throwing phony car salesman attitude. Disappointing all around.

Few plays are as nakedly autobiographical as this one, and it was worth seeing it again just to be reminded of the suffocating home Tennessee Williams escaped and later wrote about. Menagerie was his life. Like Tom, the play's narrator, Williams (whose real name was Tom) worked in a shoe warehouse as he dreamed of writing (one of his warehouse co-workers was named Stanley Kowalski). Williams had a mentally disabled sister and an overbearing steel magnolia of a mother. Writing this play must have been an exorcism of personal demons, though Williams doesn't make it clear through Tom Wingfield why he needed to revisit such painful memories. Told in flashback by Tom, who has moved far away from Amanda and Laura, the play leaves its women locked away in the past, in dusty, claustrophobic rooms with a scratchy Victrola and peeling wallpaper. We never know what becomes of them.

There are three distinctly different versions of The Glass Menagerie in print, and DTC director Claudia Zelevansky has returned to an early one that includes the back-wall projections of words and phrases that Williams indicated and that many directors ignore. If Zelevansky was going for an authentic revival of how Williams wanted the show to look and play, she's erred by letting her actors interpret their roles too broadly. They don't find the vulnerability in their characters, and we aren't moved by their desperate loneliness. Laura doesn't even seem to care much about her collection of little glass animals. That's a sure sign something is amiss in this Menagerie.