Bourbon is on the rocks, and so, apparently, is a marriage in James McLure's Laundry and Bourbon and Lone Star, two interlocked one-act plays. Both include the same array of characters: two close companions and one intruder bearing a sordid secret. Both end in revelations, vomit, and toppled props. And both acknowledge that the clean slate of a new day might make the previous evening's news a little more palatable.
However, there's a fundamental difference in the plays' presentation at Alliance Theatre Lab in Miami Lakes: These one-acts might feel as inseparable as a Lohan and a police report, but only one of them is particularly good. Taken together, this yin-and-yang diptych is half-masterpiece, half-slog.
The setting for both is the small Texas town of Maynard a couple of years after the Vietnam War. In the opening play, Laundry and Bourbon, Elizabeth (Gladys Ramirez) folds one and imbibes the other in the comfort of her backyard. Her A/C is broken, but she has a TV set and a stereo outside to help pass the time. With its picket fence, white shirts drying on lines, and hampers of clothes in various states of cleanliness, director Adalberto Acevedo's set design looks properly lived-in while suggesting a married couple walking a precarious tightrope between the lower and middle classes. Its lone dramaturgical mistake is the record player, which is obviously a faux-retro, modern department-store model containing a CD player — best to switch that out with something more period-appropriate.
Elizabeth is visited by two guests: Hattie (Breeza Zeller), a close friend and a harried mother of three; and the less welcome Amy Lee (Andrea Bovino), a Fundamentalist Baptist and unrepentant gossip. Amy Lee brings news about Elizabeth's wandering husband Roy that Elizabeth probably knew but needed to hear out loud. Nevertheless, more bourbon is downed, and near-fisticuffs soon follow between the hotheaded Hattie and the equally acid-tongued Amy Lee. There's also some creatively staged choreography of women behaving badly.
The Alliance's Laundry and Bourbon is an exemplary piece of theater. If Ramirez gamely navigates through a role and a dialect that are not completely in her wheelhouse, the show is carried by a career-best performance from Zeller. Granted, she has the best lines: Her son "doesn't have the sense God gave a screwdriver," and a neighbor with six kids "does not have children; she drops litters." But it's the zest for life with which she imbues her character that spreads to the rest of the cast and enlivens McLure's writing.
There is much pleasure in simply hearing Zeller pronounce words in a uniquely impenetrable Texas drawl — "God" isn't the televangelist's "Gawd" so much as "Goad" — and her comic timing in delivering McLure's funniest gems is unmatched. She is as clever with her gestures and expressions as she is with her lines, and in her best moments, sentiment, anger, and wit commingle, capturing the subtle emotional dichotomies in the script.
The same can't be said for her equivalent in Lone Star, the show's all-male corollary. After the intermission, Acevedo's set has economically morphed from a domestic back porch to a watering hole's outdoor derrière, a space dotted with appropriate detritus such as discarded tires, planks of wood, and empty gasoline cans. This time, it's Elizabeth's husband Roy (Daniel Nieves) who consumes most of the play's oxygen, wasting away another night in a shiftless, alcoholic stupor. He still blames the war for his malaise, and he lives in the past: His greatest object of affection is not his wife but his 1959 pink Thunderbird convertible, a car that symbolizes the hedonistic freedom of his youth.
While downing God knows how many bottles of Lone Star, his favorite brew, Roy converses with Ray (an amusing Kristian Bikic), his seemingly meek but, we'll learn, brave younger brother. Eventually they encounter Cletis (Juan Gamero), a dim hayseed married to Amy Lee from Laundry and Bourbon; he bears the bad news around which the rest of the play revolves.
Lone Star is, frankly, a drag — a vintage car whose engine sputters and sputters but doesn't quite start. Part of the problem is that Gamero hasn't yet mastered his small part, rushing through poorly enunciated lines that left many members of the opening-night audience scratching their heads. Likewise, Nieves lacks the nuance that Zeller provided her character in the first act. He performs with too much control for a character with PTSD and an overdose of alcohol in his system; he acts less drunk, not more drunk, the more Lone Star he imbibes.
Even when he threatens other characters with violence, the tone remains flatly lighthearted, lacking a sense of imminent danger. This might have been a deliberate decision from directors Acevedo and Juan Carlos Besares. If so, it does a disservice to the writing, because the sparks of unpredictability and intensity that made Laundry and Bourbon so compelling are absent from Lone Star.
More likely, Lone Star is simply a weaker script, with characters who are more psychologically shallow and trite. Either way, we're left witnessing the secrets, regrets, and teachable moments of characters we increasingly care little about and wishing we could return to that back porch, where the only flaw was a mischosen prop.