"Lone Star" is a tall tale told in the littered backyard of a Texas saloon. "Pvt. Wars" is a series of blackouts on the cinderblock terrace of a veterans hospital. Both are comedies for three male actors, run an hour apiece, and are the work of James McLure. They arrived last night at the Century like a couple of dusty salesmen just off the road, loud voiced, ready for fun but with only some loose change in their pockets.
The author's purpose in both pieces is to render us helpless with laughter at the asinine behavior of, for the most part, country bumpkins, and then leave us with a tender smile for their frailties. But what he has written is mainly hogwash, to use a country term in use before expletives were reduced to four letters, and it is about as funny as an outhouse in a dust storm.
If we have to choose, "Lone Star" is the better. It enables an actor named Powers Boothe to have a fun time playing a sloppy, mushmouth Texas drunk who learns that while he was off in Vietnam his younger brother fooled around with his wife, a revelation coming just before being told (as in the P.S.-Your-Cat-Is-Dead joke) that his 1959 pink Thunderbird, his true love, has been wrecked.
Boothe, Leo Burmester as the dimwit of a younger brother and briefly, Clifford Peters as a caricature of a naive husband, do their best to keep things jolly under Garland Wright's direction.
But if "Lone Star" seems too silly for words, the curtain raiser, "Pvt. Wars," defies all reason. Army vets clowning about on a hospital terrace that looks more like a dank basement as designed by John Arnone and lighted by Frances Aronson, they have, except for the one called Silvio, unidentified ailments, unless it be infantilism. Silvio is a doubly perverse flasher, inasmuch as we gradually learn that his genitals have been shot off in combat, but so little is made of this that we suspect it is a joke until the playlet's misty-eyed finish.
It is, as I have said, made up of a series of blackouts, some no more than a few seconds in length, and a few actually taking place in the dark, and I can't recall a single one that was the least amusing or had a punch line with the slightest punch. Gregory Grove is the actor getting a chance to ham it up in this one, in which he plays a goofy fellow ever trying to repair a radio whose parts keep disappearing. Tony Campisi, as the fellow with disappeared parts, and the aforementioned Fetters, this time as a caricature of a stuffy Long Island rich boy from Great Neck and Montauk, of all likely places, fill out the cast.
The double bill is, as one might expect, a product of our far-flung regional theater, having been given birth to by the Actors Theater of Louisville.
Besides being the name of a down-home music bar for homesick Texans (as well as the name of their down-home beer), Lone Star is a new play by a promising young Southerner named James McLure. McLure's talent is still only "promising," because both Lone Star and its companion one-actor, Pvt. Wars, which opened last night at the Century Theater, smack of the theatrical greenhorn trying to get a firm seat in the saddle.
Not surprisingly, Lone Star is set in Texas, back of a small-town gin mill where two brothers are drinking and gassing about the two things closest to their hearts: cars and women. Powers Boothe swaggers amusingly as the macho older brother who feels out of it since he returned from Vietnam to find that nobody drinks until they puke anymore. Leo Burmester's more finely tuned performance gets even more mileage out of his hero-worshipping brother.
Although the good old boys have more color than depth, they could still charm the label off a beer bottle. But the play's real vigor lies in its roisterous language, a salty regional idiom that is half-obscenity and half-spit. Unhappily, Stuart White has directed the character study with his whip hand, lashing out laughs when he should be going after smiles and grimaces.
Garland Wright's direction of Pvt. Wars is less frenetic, but he's laboring after a lost cause. This black comedy, about three physically and emotionally damaged patients in a veterans' hospital, consists of a string of jokes, some as moldy as the blackout device the separates them.
Tony Campisi and Gregory Grove animate two of the walking wounded, but it's all surface. McLure has sketched out the characters he meant to write, and left them floundering in sitcom land. Compares to M.A.S.H., the comedy is mish.
Still, I wouldn't write off James McLure. He knows his territory and he likes his people. That won't get him home, but it does put him in the saddle.
With his two one-act comedies, "Lone Star" and "Pvt. Wars," James McLure was the comic discovery of this year's new play festival at the Actors Theater of Louisville. Like a pair of firecrackers, the plays opened at the Century Theater last night.
"Lone Star," the second and funnier play, is a down-home yarn about two roistering brothers, one who has come back from Vietnam, the other who has never left home. Sitting in the backyard of a Texas roadhouse, drinking Lone Star beer from the bottle and trading tales of misadventure, they are a pair of overgrown adolescents - and they are proud of it. The elder, Ray, plans on "doin' nothin' forever." The younger, Roy, is his worshipful admirer.
Ray boasts three loves - his wife, his country and his 1959 pink Thunderbird convertible - and by the end of the play, only one survives untarnished. As breezily staged by Stuart White, "Lone Star" never loses its sense of the ridiculous. Only once does it intentionally lapse into sentiment. The brothers embrace - for a second - and with an aw-shucks look of embarrassment, they return immediately to the serious business of playing games.
Much of the humor is based on misunderstanding, snap judgments, pregnant pauses, and sharp comebacks. Obviously Mr. McLure, who is an actor as well as a playwright, is a student of movie, as well as stand-up, comedy. There is more than a measure of the two-man vaudeville team about this pair, with the distinction that they are indigenous to the open spaces of Texas. They are so provincial that even neighborly Oklahoma is treated as a curse word. Imagine a Burt Reynolds movie as written by Mel Brooks and you might have an approximation of the hilarity.
These two good old boys are played with enormous gusto and impeccable timing by Powers Boothe (as the indolent veteran) and Leo Burmester (as his stay-at-home brother). Mr. Burmester is the only actor in both plays to repeat his role from Louisville. He should have a long lease on this role, offering an indelible portrait of a lovable hayseed, who is just a little bit smarter than everyone thinks he is.
Mr. Boothe plays the older brother as a tall, handsome cowboy star, somewhat gone to seed. He is the kind of swaggerer who could knock someone down with his smile. Swallowing hard on a chaser of whisky, he announces, "This stuff could kill you," which does not deter him from having another round.
Although the play has an underlying seriousness - about a veteran's inability to adjust and the corrosive effects of time - "Lone Star" proudly waves its banner of comedy.
The evening begins with "Pvt. Wars," which was last seen at a rehearsed reading in Louisville. The play retains its air of Second City spontaneity. An episodic string of short scenes and blackouts, it is still not as polished and concise as "Lone Star." However, Mr. McLure has clarified one crucial plot point, and the director, Garland Wright, has underscored several others in the production. "Pvt. Wars" offers laughter with a dark side.
The scene is a veterans hospital, where three wounded Vietnam soldiers are passing the time like characters out of "Catch-22." They are a Georgia hillbilly, a big-city operator, and a rich kid from Great Neck. Those labels are deceptive. For example, the hillbilly has an innate sense of wisdom - he is a realist to the core. Each has a quirky sense of humor. They get into the most bizarre discussions, which end either with insane questions such as, "Are you saying Hiawatha was a draft dodger?" or questionable irrelevancies such as "The coyote is entirely faithful." Seeing the play should confirm that these are laughlines.
Only occasionally does Mr. McLure write gags. He is creating character comedy - and these are very funny characters. In baseball cap, and a look of abject gullibility, Gregory Grove plays the country boy, Tony Campisi is properly shifty and fast on his feet as the operator, and Clifford Fetters is convincingly uptight as the rich kid.
Taken together, the plays are robustly masculine and rustic, which is not to say that they are unsophisticated. In his noteworthy New York debut as a playwright, Mr. McLure draws from a diverse comic arsenal.