Kiss 'em, Cowboys!

New York-based, Oklahoma-born playwright Clint Jeffries, who has had an artistic home with Christopher Street's Wings Theatre Company since 1986, is far from the only country boy drawn to a major theatrical Mecca with footlights in his eyes. But he has chosen a somewhat unorthodox way to create small stage works and sustain himself while living in a very expensive city: He writes pornography. More than eight blue books penned under various nommes de smut have kept the utilities on while Jeffries concentrated on scribbling goofy, if unusually good-natured, comedies of rural manners and gay realities.

His most successful to date (in that it was given two separate, well-sold productions in his adopted city) is the musical Cowboys! with sometime collaborator Paul Johnson. I recently witnessed its laudable and highly unusual Southwest premiere by Pegasus Theatre and was disarmed not so much by its originality (there's not an ounce to be tapped here) as by its utterly unpretentious devotion to cornpone conventions. You get the sense that Jeffries and Johnson have written a book and score that Tex Ritter and Roy Rogers might've starred in during their early days, before they became famous enough to choose their own material--assuming, of course, that Ritter and Rogers liked to swap spit on the dusty prairie. The wild Westerners of the title are, almost to a man, admirers of the masculine form, and they've sought refuge at the Straight Arrow Ranch under the protection of Rosie Ritter (played in Dallas by Rebekah Durk, strolling her way with thumbs in belt buckle through a winning Marjorie Main impression). This may seem like a one-joke premise--and if all goes well, in a few years it will be--but the tiny innovation that the joyously silly Cowboys! achieves is to offer up gay men free of the constraints of urban ghetto, stylish angst, political scars and insider-speak. The emphasis here is on people not issues. In other words, it's gay escapism of the most desperately needed kind. Armies of so-called homo-clones may protest--Where are all the community references?! But Jeffries and Johnson's show frees us to gawk at all the boys kissing--and in set designer Bryan Wofford's coloring-book page of a bright blue-sky ranch entrance, it's a little jarring at first even for the initiated--and eventually forget all the friction between context and content and settle back for a series of well-timed performances.

Rosie Ritter is about to lose the Straight Arrow to a bank, so her boys decide to put on a show of roping, shooting and high kicking to save it. Meanwhile, other, more sinister factors are in play. Black Bart (Pat Watson) and Lilly Luscious (Rachel Schnitzius) want the deed to retrieve the oil that bubbles underfoot and are willing to seduce to get it. Unfortunately, prime target Ranger Rick (Regan Adair, easily the show's best crooner) responds better to baritone voices and facial hair than lace and perfume, so the pressure's on Black Bart to pique--or is that peak?--Rick's interest.

There are numerous lively belly laughs to be taken from Cowboys!, including Lilly Luscious' countrypolitan Patsy Cline knockoff titled "I Fall to Faded Pieces After Midnight When Your Sweet Dreams Drive Me Crazy" and "The Girl From Texarkana," in which black-wigged Raymond Banda as Judge Sassafras dons a white dress to distract Black Bart with an invitation to romance that resembles a pro wrestling match. But it's Watson as Black Bart who gives Cowboys! more depth than probably the authors (and maybe Dallas director Andi Allen) intended. At Pegasus Theatre, Watson has already done assured, relaxed comic versions of Jesus Christ and a George W. Bush-like gubernatorial candidate. His long, pained wooing of Ranger Rick--sidling up to him with wary eyes and a fake come-hither smile--culminates in a smooch that melts Watson's whole body in a fantastic pratfall. Combining physical comedy and emotional conflict effectively is a tall order, but the versatile Watson possesses more than 10 gallons of virtuosity to pull it off.

The tiny second theater on the top floor of Fort Worth's Ridglea Theatre looks like it's more suited for stand-up comedy or, if they installed an overhead cabin for puppeteers, a marionette show. As it happens, there are variations on both of those entertainment forms featured in M.A.N.I.F.E.S.T.O. 2001, the festival of new short plays performed by the improv-minded MoonWater Theater Company. Just because they acknowledge in press materials that the acronym title of their annual showcase of original works is too long doesn't make it all better, but for your information, the name stands for "MoonWater's Annual New Imaginings Festival Exploring Society, Theater and Ourselves." The verbosity is supposed to be a detailed warning to people who might be after brainless theatrical kicks, although it sounds like one of those suspiciously ornate dodges for an ideological think tank. There is a political purpose here, in form if not in content. MoonWater coordinator Jeffrey Schmidt and his merry band choose one hotly discussed social issue each year and solicit short scripts from local and national playwrights to investigate it from a variety of angles (hopefully).

This year finds MoonWater reflecting various distorted shots of the death penalty, and the timing with Timothy McVeigh's scheduled execution and last-minute stay couldn't be more propitious, although it's apparently coincidental. The trouble is, you'll find more grist to gnaw on in the migraine-inducing cable TV shoutfest Hardball than most of the six playlets here that range from poignant to absurdist--and that's a fairly damning statement. We could start off with the questionable quality of some of the submissions to MoonWater's script search. The final entry onstage is Kris Kissel's You Can't Dis the King, an irrelevant, thuddingly unfunny piece about an Elvis impersonator (Carey Wolff) arrested and executed on a guillotine named "The Lisa Marie" by two Kafkaesque cops (Lydia MacKay and Mark Phillips). But first, we must acknowledge that even though MoonWater is full of proven performance talents--Schmidt, MacKay, Jakie Cabe, Brad Jackson--they haven't gelled abilities and sensibilities in their first season. Watching them, you can't shake the impression that they're little more than a promising undergrad stage ensemble. On last week's opening night performance, lines were flubbed, lights miscued, and the videotaped performance of Pix Smith's black puppet comedy Heads Will Roll began at the end of the tape and had to be rewound. I might've appreciated Smith's eerie trio of talking decapitated heads celebrating the means and reasons of their own executions if I could have heard the dialogue and seen the visuals projected on a white screen instead of a wall. The funniest thing about Lyn Fenwick's The Detail, in which a husband and wife (Rebeccah Graham and Jeff Heald) argue over George W. Bush's understanding of hate-crimes laws during the Bush-Gore debate, is Dubya's own scatterbrained assessment of the James Byrd case, reproduced verbatim here from the original audiotape.

A nod must go to actor Trey Albright, who transforms himself from a cruel prison storyteller taunting a fellow inmate (MacKay) in Natalie Gaupp's Rush, to a mildly retarded man on death row being cajoled onto the lethal-injection gurney by a protective fellow inmate (Darius Warren) in Jason Tremblay's Chicken and Ice Cream. In the latter, especially, he is remarkably authentic and touching in one of an actor's most difficult feats, expressing feeling through reaction, through the silent face alone while listening.

One final observation about M.A.N.I.F.E.S.T.O. 2001--unseen MoonWater member Brad Jackson, in a deep voice somewhere between a carnival barker and a paid preacher delivering a eulogy, wonders aloud at the beginning and end of the show as lights swirl around the painted sets: "Where do you stand?" At least half of these presentations are too purposefully circular to take a position, a dance that manages to be both refreshing and frustrating, while the other half seem steadfastly against state-sponsored killing. For the record, I'm against capital punishment, too, but I wonder if there isn't a talented playwright somewhere who could give eloquent voice to either the free-floating rage that inspires death penalty support or, at least, the unmanageable grief that drives victims' families to want to watch the killers of their loved ones die. And if that playwright existed, would he or she be included in this company's collection? At the moment, MoonWater Theater hasn't polished its own act or taken sufficient technical control of its space at the Ridglea to bother about divergent viewpoints too much. But if it's truly interested in using theater to challenge us with unconventional takes on talked-to-death topics, it ought to be willing to find some truth--or just a bit of sincerity--so we can understand the source of populist sentiments.