James McLure’s Laundry & Bourbon and Lonestar are two separate plays, but function in Fells Point Corner Theatre’s production as a complete work. The play explores the lives of six deceptively simple, salt of the earth folk in the small town of Maynard, Texas. There are women who only want to talk about men, and men who only want to talk about women. Sure, there are discussions about Let’s Make a Deal and the Vietnam War, but the heart of the story is about male/female dynamics. The production is unauthentic to the Southern voice, but delivers some redeeming moments of poignancy and humor, particularly in the second half.
Laundry and Bourbon opens the evening, and concerns the highs and lows of life as a young Texas housewife. The play takes us to the back porch of Elizabeth Calder (Zarah Rautell) as she visits with her friend and neighbor Hattie Dealing (Tessa Blische). The two gossip about their husbands while folding one piece of laundry for every two tumblers of bourbon and coke. Idle chitchat makes up most of the dialogue, but lurking underneath is a sense of worry, as Elizabeth can’t help but stare off into the horizon, as if she is waiting for the arrival of something or someone. Someone does arrive, eventually— Amy Lee Fullernoy (Sarah Laughland), a proud Baptist, and member of the local country club. Amy’s appearance provides conflict as she reveals that Elizabeth’s husband is gallivanting around town in the company of another woman.
The three actors push through the realm of caricature and show the audience multiple levels of these otherwise simple, misogynistic men.
Lonestar takes the audience to a local late-night watering hole, and centers on the affairs of Elizabeth’s husband Roy (Eric Park) and his brother Ray (Andrew Porter). Roy fancies himself a Paul Newman type whose greatest love seems to be his car, a 1959 pink Thunderbird. Ray is the slow-witted but good-natured little brother. Ray plays along with Roy’s drunken antics, but when left to his own devices, he wanders the stage agonizing over a secret. The brothers are joined by the anxious, nerdy Cletis T. Fullneroy (David Shoemaker) and engage in battle not of wits, but of testosterone. The obvious winner is Roy, but Ray knocks his brother off his high horse when he reveals what has been troubling him.
Laundry & Bourbon has more jokes per minute than Lonestar. However, authentic comedic moments are rare. The actors speak with passable Texan accents, but the pace is much too fast. The dialogue becomes a sharp repartee more suited to a David Mamet play. The tone is distinctly East Coast, and makes the atmosphere feel unauthentic. The exception is Sarah Laughland, who delivers Amy Lee’s sugarcoated insults with a smile on her face that would do any Southern woman proud. Zarah Rautell is also a strong player as Elizabeth, portraying an effective combination of world-weariness and youthful passion. The way she describes her first amorous encounters with her husband make you believe she will always love Roy, regardless of any indiscretions or infidelities. The moments she spends lost in her own alcohol-induced memories are the high points of Laundry.
Lonestar is arguably the stronger of the two pieces. If the forces behind the action of Laundry are saccharine-sweet remembrances and girlish dreaming, the engine driving Lonestar is greasy masculine energy. It feels just wrong enough to be true-to-life. The pace is just as quick, but the sharpness is more effective for characters that are liable to explode at any minute, unlike the passive aggression of the women in Laundry. The three actors push through the realm of caricature and show the audience multiple levels of these otherwise simple, misogynistic men. The strongest player is Ray (Andrew Porter), whose facile nature borders on Of Mice and Men territory, but takes the audience by surprise when he outsmarts the powerful Roy (Eric Park).
David Shoemaker plays the nerdy, anxiety-ridden Cletis with loose-limbed physicality, like a redneck Niles Crane from Frasier. Macho, beer-swilling, 2×4-slinging Roy might be able to beat the tar out of Cletis, but Cletis could definitely outrun him.
The production aims for realism, but it’s hard to feel like a fly on the wall when you notice every time a joke goes by without a laugh. Director Lance Lewman shows his hand with a few amateurish directing tricks. In the scene where Roy confronts Ray about a devastating indiscretion, Ray inexplicably backs himself into a pole when he has plenty of playing space to escape. The authenticity of the production is already at stake with the poor pacing, so seeing the director’s intentions reminds you once again that you are watching a play, not spying on your neighbors from your own back porch. In Laundry, the women stand and sit on furniture without justification in the text or their own intentions. Hattie, who might be marked as a grounded woman from the way she coolly describes her experiences with her wild children, stands at odd angles on the stage, shifting her weight and trying to decide what to do with the drink in her hand.
It is also unclear when exactly the story takes place. It is not until a good half an hour into the play when references to the Vietnam War as a recent event start popping up in conversation. The costumes provide little indication of the time period— the women’s dresses look like modern interpretations purchased at a department store during a pseudo-70’s phase. The men could easily be flannel-clad hipsters pulled from the streets of downtown Baltimore.
Due to heavy-handed directing and a lack of attention to pacing, Laundry & Bourbon does not live up to its full potential. Lonestar rings true with the help of actors who bring depth and clarity to their stock characters. While the production doesn’t have that sweet tea in the summertime, front porch at dusk feeling, moments of genuine substance make up for a few poorly timed jokes.
Advisory: Frequent use of strong language.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, with one intermission.
Laundry and Bourbon / Lonestar plays through March 3, 2013 at Fells Point Corner Theatre at 251 S. Ann Street, Baltimore, MD 21231. For tickets call the box office at 410-276-7837, or click here.