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Steven Walters’ play, Pluck the Day, is smarter and funnier than I feared a homegrown, West Texas, backwoods, blue-collar buddy comedy might be. But not as smart or funny as I hoped it would be.
Pluck opens the new season of Second Thought Theatre, where playwright Walters is a co-founder, when he’s not onstage acting at the Dallas Theater Center. His comedy is sort of a Texas My Name is Earl — if Earl never wandered out of reach of the beer cooler on the porch. On a Sunday morning, two and a half guys drink and argue over crossword puzzle clues and wonder what’s happened to their other chum, the peyote-using Fred (Mike Schraeder) who’s stumbling around lost in the cacti again.
I count two and a half men at first: There’s the loud, drunk, dimwitted Duck (Clay Yokum), the smarter, more sensitive Bill (Chris LaBove) — and comatose-asleep in the corner most of the time is the nearly non-existent Merle (musician Greg Schroeder). And when April (Jenny Ledel) pops in, it’s clear she exists mostly for the plot complications among the men. Chemically enlightened from his psychedelic walkabout, the prodigal Fred returns, determined to marry her — having neglected their relationship for far too long. But Duck raises some objections. Some Jim Beam gets consumed, a shotgun is waved, fidelity and friendships are questioned.
Walters is clearly dealing in stereotypes about good ol’ boys but, somewhat like Earl, he’s updating them, undercutting them, making them not so redneck-y and mean (hey, Duck loves ABBA). These layabouts are more lovable, partly because they’re young and lost and self-medicating. But that’s a gentling process the playwright doesn’t have under firm control.
Typically, buddy stories raise one of two issues. Possible Issue One: If the buddies are involved in a business or some project, will they betray each other to get ahead? Will one of them sink the project for his own needs or does the project itself turn out to be unworthy of them all? (Think David Mamet or That Championship Season or a million heist films.) Possible Issue Two: If the buddies in question are younger, single or college-age, will one or more of them ‘grow up’ and leave the old gang — get married, go off to college, find some new opportunity or purpose? (Think American Graffiti or Breaking Away or Merrily We Roll Along.)
The difference between the two comes to this: In the first type of buddy story, the betrayer is often expelled. In the second, the new adult often leaves under his own steam. Pluck is definitely a buddy comedy of the second sort; the question is: Who’s quitting the porch first? Fred wants to get married, while smartypants Bill knows he’s long outgrown his fellow Squidbillies. But Walters brings in complications of the first sort of buddy story as well, issues of betrayal and disguise. And it’s here, when he tries to complicate these characters, that Pluck gets clunky.
The Second Thought production, directed by Matthew Gray, is exemplary, far sharper than the untidy lives it portrays. Whatever else Pluck does, it gives the performers some choice material to work with. One can’t escape the notion than an actor named Clay Yokum was destined to play a yokel like Duck, and play him wonderfully well. Yokum pretty much drives the play’s energy and entertainment, bringing a bright sweetness to Duck, even as Duck bellows homophobic slurs.
But Duck’s true mental capacity is actually a little uncertain. Like the play itself, he seems, at times, to be putting on the slackjawed act, being self-consciously outrageous. What are we to make of a college failure who uses words like “euphemism” and calls someone a “Brutus,” yet is unable to decipher the crossword clue: “a hill-building insect,” three letters?
This means Duck-as-idiot-bully is mixed, unevenly, with Duck-as-pugnacious-scamp. Perhaps Duck’s entire opening scene — in which he doesn’t deduce a single, simple crossword — is not a display of his lowbrow credentials at all but is his sly way of goading Bill. With growing irritation, Bill offers the right answers and their obvious explanations.In this way, Duck forces him to remind everyone, including himself, why he’s the ‘outsider’ here: He’s gay, full of book-larnin’ and hates this bigoted, backwoods purgatory.
But if so, it’s odd that Bill never calls Duck on this ploy. Bill, we’re made to understand, is the smartest person parked on the porch. Duck prods Bill into revealing his genius-level IQ and into explaining why, nonetheless, he remains here among the empty heads and the empty cans of Old Milwaukee. And Bill never throws it back at him.
Perhaps Duck is cagier than he appears or perhaps Bill is not so smart. He misquotes Descartes’ famous conclusion that “I think therefore I am,” saying, “Cognito ergo sum.” Cogito and cognito are different Latin verbs, the one essentially meaning “think,” the other “know.” It seems playwright Walters has Bill use the wrong cognito as a set up for Duck’s later twist on it with Incognito ergo sum: I dunno, therefore I am. Which, once again, makes Duck look cleverer than he seems.
You’re right: Who cares about all this first-year Latin — especially when there are peyote jokes to laugh at? Walters has an enjoyable way with wordplay and humor. But seeing as his stage play ultimately pivots on a mistaken identification and a hidden, sexual orientation, just how smart, dim, disguised or self-knowing these characters are is certainly relevant. Otherwise, the mistaken ID and the revelation seem like plot contrivances; they don’t develop organically out of the characters’ desires and failings.
Which, in fact, is an issue. Duck, for instance, is a guilty party here, not so much because he’s a gossip-spreading moron but because he’s unwilling to ‘fess up to an optometrical weakness. That particular twist in the evidence against April (Duck spotted her in flagrante delectable, fooling around behind Fred’s back) is a little old-fashioned and trivial-mechanical, like something out of Perry Mason. (“You couldn’t detect the distinctive odor of cyanide, Mrs. Winthrop, could you? Just as you can’t tell I’m wearing Old Spice aftershave! You have chronic sinusitis!”)
One critic has argued that Walters has sacrificed his more serious intentions for the play’s hee-haws. If that’s the case, it was a futile sacrifice. It actually takes awhile for Pluck to build up its yucks and just when it’s hitting its beer-bellied stride, in come the complications. It seems more likely that Walters wants to seize it all — humor and heartfelt characters and dramatic surprise — and grabs lumpy bits of each. A little like Duck and Bill, Walters is either not willing to stick with the dumb-bumpkin humor or gets too clever for his own good trying to make the bumpkins mean something sensitive.
Which isn’t to say Pluck doesn’t get to be howlingly funny at times. In addition to Yokum and Schraeder’s performances, I particularly enjoyed the moment when it’s discovered that Merle in the corner — who’s been living here, not saying much, drinking everyone’s beer, sleeping on the porch — is not actually related to anyone. Considering how contained Pluck is (in a very Mamet-like fashion, all the action takes place in one place, in one morning), this bit of nonsense is a howl.
One reason it’s such a grace note: It’s completely unrelated to all the other characters’ complications. It comes out of nowhere and just exists to be funny.
A final note: Little mention in the press has been made of Second Thought Theatre’s transformation of Bryant Hall into a black box theater, other than to note the new season’s new location in what had been a rehearsal room. Second Thought had previously presented an earlier version of Pluck the Day in their first season and in a different location. This time, it’s downstairs in the Heldt Administration Building next to the Kalita Humphreys Theater.
Many years ago, a small group of associates and I changed a similar rehearsal hall into a mini-proscenium, and it took power tools and real labor. But the transformation — we made a theater where there wasn’t one — proved deeply satisfying. So, my compliments. Matthew Gray’s set design is both crisp and backwoods-rundown. It shows off the new space well.
I was also surprisingly touched. I knew Ken Bryant, the late artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center who died young from a wretched medical accident in 1990.
I suspect he’d appreciate that his name graces what is now an actual, working theater. Welcome back, Ken.