The Power of Positive Drinking

"Look at that woman," muses Hattie, as she watches a contestant dressed in a chicken suit lose everything during a rerun of Let's Make a Deal. "Disappointment is carved on her face." Of course, Hattie (Meredith Marsuli), a character in James McLure's one-act comedy Laundry & Bourbon, has already seen every episode of the television game show at least once before. But that's not the only reason she recognizes the woman's shattered expression. With the compassionate eye of a kindred spirit, Hattie understands how disappointment shapes the face of one's entire life. However, she'll take her disappointment with a hefty dose of tough-talking Texas humor, thank you. And it's that humor that buoys McLure's Laundry & Bourbon, as well as his Lone Star, now playing in tandem at Florida Playwrights' Theatre in Hollywood.

Born in Louisiana and educated in Texas, McLure began his career as an actor, but made a name for himself as a playwright in New York City in the early Eighties with plays about the Lone Star state. Though written a year apart -- Lone Star in 1979, Laundry & Bourbon in 1980 -- the plays share the same setting (Maynard, Texas), same theme (coming to terms with the losses of the past), and connected characters (two of the women in one play are married to two of the men in the other). Not surprisingly, the comedies are usually presented together. Still stuck in Maynard ten years after high school, McLure's characters in both plays cope with their unfulfilled dreams of love, family life, freedom, and status by indulging in nostalgia and by hitting the bottle. Luckily for us, most of the characters are also very funny.

Requiring uncomplicated sets (easily changed during intermission) and offering a chance for actors to hone their craft by portraying well-conceived characters in an ensemble setting, the duet fits snugly into the season of a small theater such as Florida Playwrights'. In addition, FPT puts a nice spin on the evening by having a man, Paul Thomas, direct the all-female Laundry & Bourbon, and a woman, Angela Thomas, direct the all-male Lone Star. (This productive husband-and-wife team founded and now run FPT.)

Laundry takes place on the front porch of Elizabeth (Shannon Emerick) and Roy's house, where Hattie shows up one hot summer afternoon while her three kids visit their grandmother; there she finds Elizabeth sighing into her bourbon because Roy hasn't been home for two days. The women commiserate about men and reminisce about the hell-raising times they shared in high school. Then Amy Lee (Julia Jimenez) arrives. An inveterate soul-saving Baptist and a committed climber up whatever social ladder exists in sleepy old Maynard, Amy Lee breaks up the pair's memory fest; she also drives up the play's humor quotient as she and Hattie trade verbal swipes.

By contrast, Lone Star opens at night behind Angel's Bar, with the ne'er-do-well Roy (Paul Thomas) surrounded by junk food and bottles of longneck Lone Star beer. Home from Vietnam for two years now (he's the only man in Maynard who served), he can't, in his own words, "seem to get nothin' started." Instead he languishes in thoughts of his glory days, out cruising with friends or getting laid in the back of his beloved 1959 pink Thunderbird convertible. Roy's brother Ray (Jason Winfield) and Amy Lee's husband Cletis (Rob de los Reyes) worship and fear Roy, who abuses them mercilessly. In a rare rash moment, Cletis the nerd takes the keys to Roy's T-bird. What ensues brings Roy's slowly simmering rage and frustration to a full -- and farcical -- boiling point.

Maybe it's a girl thing but I liked Laundry better than Lone Star. The tangier humor finds its basis in character as opposed to caricature, whereas the cartoonish men in Lone Star are, well, just plain crude and stupid. But while Laundry holds greater appeal as a play, Lone Star the production succeeds more fully. Director Angela Thomas understands McLure's humor implicitly, never hesitating to go for the all-out slapstick the script intends. On the other hand, director Paul Thomas too often mistakes the sensuality in Laundry for sentimentality; he also doesn't mine all the humor in the script, particularly by directing Amy Lee as a foil to the outrageous Hattie. Had he encouraged both women to be over the top, the production might have shifted from the merely funny to the totally uproarious. Both Thomases nicely convey a sense of Texas through their direction, with the powerful landscape -- the hot sun, the big clouds, the flat land during the day, and the endless starry night sky -- becoming a character itself.

A charming actress, Emerick tinges her depiction of Elizabeth with melancholy, but occasionally she falls into the trap of portraying the character as a victim. And yet she delivers a passionate ode to the back seat of a Thunderbird during Elizabeth's principal monologue. While Marsuli deftly balances a sympathetic portrayal of Hattie with the laughs the roles requires, an even funnier performance could have been drawn from her. As for Jimenez, she simply takes her role as Amy Lee too seriously, failing to push the two-faced character to her comic extremes.

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