One-Act at the Watering Hole

Free theater, cold beer. There are worse ways to spend an evening.

Lone Star: The Bar Tour Friday and Saturday, December 6 and 7, at Becky's, 1762 East 18th Street, 216-621-0055; and on Friday and Saturday, December 13 and 14, at the Lincoln Park Pub, 2609 West 14th Street, 216-621-2240. Shows begin at 8 and 11 p.m. No cover charge.
Koesters (left) and Branstein, two of Lone - Star's stars.
Koesters (left) and Branstein, two of Lone Star's stars.
The play Lone Star is only 40 minutes long -- just about the right length for your average lager-swillin' philistine. Set in a Texas bar, it's the latest site-specific theater offering from the Charenton Theatre Company, which once again bravely takes free theater to average folk sitting around in public places, minding their own damn business -- those who've never found their way onto a Playhouse Square mailing list. The Bar Tour is the spiritual descendant (or winter-season equivalent) of the company's Park Bench Tour, which, in the last two years, presented Edward Albee's The Zoo Story and Herb Gardner's I'm Not Rappaport on . . . park benches.

Once the artistic staff realized, however, that they were quickly running out of plays set in and around park benches, they searched for other ideas that might fit into the environmental-theater tour mold. After nixing a proposed Spoon River Anthology cemetery tour, they came up with this bar-tour production of James McClure's script. Unfortunately, the play itself isn't as inspired as the free-theater tour concept or quite worthy of three of Cleveland's stronger comedic actors, Nick Koesters, Allen Branstein, and Tom Cullinan (you may know them from The Mike and Al Show).

"Boy art" is the term that comes to mind -- guys sitting around, talking about cars and broads, drinking beer, making primal screams. Maybe the whole experience would have a bit more texture if presented as intended, twinned with another McClure one-act, Laundry and Bourbon. That play is about three ladies, two of whom are married to the boys of Lone Star, and sounds as if it might add a bit of Southern-belle yin to the good-ol'-boy yang.

But the bar play presented solo means the whole evening of theater comes in at under an hour, so it's an even trade-off. Lone Star's story centers on two brothers, Roy (Koesters) and Ray (Branstein). Roy is the Man, the one with the car, the one who gets the girls, the one who saw action in Vietnam. Ray, on the other hand, is the surface dimwit with secret smarts, the one who got out of combat duty and into Roy's wife's panties. Ray is a total Gomer, but Branstein seems incapable of letting a boob be a boob; he always imbues his fools with subversive intelligence and a maniacal gleam. Throughout the course of the play, the brothers goof on Roy's days in 'Nam, get rapturously torqued up about the white-hot sex power of Roy's Thunderbird, drink a case of Lone Star beer, and eventually blurt out some festering family secrets.

Interrupting the toxic brother-bonding is the appearance of the nerd colossus, Cletis (Cullinan). You can tell he's a Texas nerd, 'cause he wears a bolo tie with his pocket protector. Cletis has had a little accident with Roy's T-Bird convertible (pronounced con-ver-tee-bull), and Roy's love for his car is matched only by his hatred for Cletis. So Roy finds out that his brother had slept with his wife and his precious car has been totaled -- all in one night. It's a double whammy, if a little forced.

For all of the script's lack of innovation and substance, at least the production itself is slickly pulled off. Koesters, Branstein, and Cullinan are clearly having fun with the play and each other; they are agile actors, whose performances benefit from their having worked together before. As Roy, Koesters freely and joyously howls like a coyote; waxes poetic about his love for wife, country, and car; and finally purges his attachment to his alpha-male identity. Branstein underplays Ray, giving him just enough boyish innocence to make it believable that he could get away with major brotherly betrayal by violating one of "God's major laws." Cullinan paints Cletis in giant brushstrokes, making him a sweet and lovable hayseed buffoon.

Program notes for Lone Star make a game effort to infuse the play with some post-September 11 relevance, although it's hard to find parallels between one guy losing his shit-kicking youth and the entire Western world losing its sense of security. The script is sort of funny, if you enjoy raunchy Hee-Haw after-hours lines like "I wouldn't piss in your mouth if your guts was on fire," and in fact, most of the crowd in attendance seemed to enjoy jokes just like that.

Which may be the main selling point of the Bar Tour: It's just a wonderful thing to be hanging out at your favorite neighborhood pub -- and Charenton is stopping at some favorites, like Becky's and the Lincoln Park Pub -- and unexpectedly happen upon this salty little Southern one-act. Besides, what else are you going to do? Throw darts? Play the jukebox? Order yourself up a pitcher of brew before the whole thing starts, and you'll probably have a pretty great time.

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