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Review: Theatre Three’s ‘Oil’ Gets Doused With Vinegar
by Jerome Weeks 29 Jan 2016
4_Theatre Three_OIL_Back L-R_Jenna Anderson_John S. Davies_Greg Hullett_Patricia E. Hill_Front_ Gene Raye PriceSMALL_Photo by Stephanie Drenka

in Theatre 3’s ‘Oil’: Gene Raye Price, front. Back: Jenna Anderson, John Davis, Gregory Hullet and Patricia E. Hill. Photo: Stephanie Drenka. Images up top and out front: Shutterstock.

Theatre Three has opened a world-premiere play about a wealthy Texas family coming apart during the oil recession of the late 1980s. The play, called ‘Oil,’ has a feisty, strong-willed  matriarch eager to defy OPEC and save her company, a gay nephew and a daughter pushing solar energy as the real answer. KERA’s Justin Martin and Jerome Weeks sat down to drill through ‘Oil.’

Justin: I understand ‘Oil,’ the new play at Theatre Three, is set in Houston in 1987. I’m assuming that, like now, oil prices were probably fluctuating.

‘Oil’ runs through Feb. 14 at Theatre 3. The Teatro Dallas International Festival runs Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 4-6/
JWYeah, you mean cratering. Surprise – 30 years later, it seems little has changed with Texas oil companies. The wealthy family in this play, ‘Oil,’ is split between those who want to drill for American oil, and those who hate oil for what it’s done to the environment and are pushing for solar energy.

Here’s how ‘Oil’ opens. The family matriarch – played by Gene Raye Price – has just woken up in bed looking for her morning shot of whiskey. And she immediately starts talking about drilling again. Her husband, played by John Davies, cuts her off.

Sycamore: We’re not gonna talk about this. Not today, not any day. You’re not drilling for oil. No domestic production until the price goes up, and that’s final.

Magritte: You’re not talking to the Petroleum Club. You’re talking to your wife. Without oil, our own oil, we’re nothing–

Sycamore: You’re starting up again, and don’t think we can’t tell —

Magritte: I’m not gonna sit by while a few ayatollahs decide whether we live or retire! No one understands. I got to do it my way, or I’m really dead.

And that sets up the whole play. The writer, the late Neil Tucker, worked in energy – in addition to writing plays. Trouble is, there’s no insight here into the oil industry or into “colorful Texas characters” — nothing you couldn’t pick up from a couple of episodes of the original ‘Dallas’ on TV.

Basically, despite all the family’s troubles, ‘Oil’ is Texas camp.

Justin: What do you mean by ‘Texas camp’?

JWI think even you’d recognized Texas camp when you see it. There’s the gutsy matriarch full of vim and trash-talking honesty who’s also touched by tragedy — she sets the tone for everything else, loud and proud and boozy-funny but also weepily sentimental. There’s the sarcastic black maid, a well-worn cliche. There’s the New Agey daughter who’s actually sharper than we initially are led to believe. There’s the crusty old Texas oil man who’s responsible for a massive petroleum spill fouling the Gulf and is getting indicted and who’s a homophobe to boot but, you know, is basically a decent guy.

And, of course, these characters all spout folksy, comic metaphors like “We go out for dinner one night – and you throw up in the backseat like some floozy on a Galveston rollercoaster.”

Justin: Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t Dan Rather say stuff like that?

JWYeah, exactly. Texas camp wants to be downhome and real, but it’s actually self-conscious and pretend-frank. It’s in-jokey, it’s dependent on stock characters and situations. I’ve seen Texas camp work well — once. That was the original ‘Greater Tuna’ – not the sequels, which fell into shtick. ‘Greater Tuna’ succeeded so well because, even in drag, actor Joe Sears made characters like Aunt Pearl and Bertha Bumiller utterly real, beautifully observed and defined. And whatever serious points ‘Greater Tuna’ wanted to make, they were slipped in through the comedy.

‘Oil’ is a comedy and a big ol’ family melodrama. It wants to say something about Texas and Texas politics, the state’s defiant independence and its utter dependence on oil. It wants to create a larger-than-life figure in the mom and get off some decent, well-deserved zingers at the Bush family. All this, but the play’s current status is a bit sad, really. ‘Oil,’ the play, has been given readings by Echo Theatre and the Dallas Theater Center – with some big-name talent attached like Tyne Daly. Yet it’s still too long, too talky, not funny enough, not focused enough.

A small point, admittedly, but the play even gets some of its period references wrong. In 1987, people didn’t say “mini-me” — a term from the Austin Powers films, the first of which came out ten years later. Nor did they speak of “blood diamonds,” a term commonly used in the West only after a round of brutal civil wars in Angola, the Congo and Sierra Leone, all of which happened in the 1990s.

The best things about Theatre Three’s show are Bruce Coleman’s handsomely cheesy set and Gene Raye Price getting a healthy workout. She’s in nearly every scene, and it’s good to see her at her age, running and raising up a storm, having fun — even if her character is a noisy, blowsy caricature.

Caracol

From ‘Caracol y Colibri.’

Justin: Well, bust ma britches, Jerome, what else is coming up that’s worth a look?

JWTeatro Dallas’ annual International Festival, beginning Thursday. This is the first time Teatro Dallas is collaborating with Dallas Children’s Theatre on the festival. There are only four shows, but they range from a colorful children’s show, Caracol y Colibri – meaning ‘Snail and Hummingbird’ — to a provocative solo artist Violeta Luna and a performance by the Danielle Georgiou Dance Group from Dallas. One of the remarkable things is that after 17 years, Teatro Dallas’ International Festival is still the only annual theater festival in North Texas that actually imports companies from other countries.

And not just Mexico, although Mexico is the focus this year. So we get a smidgen of cultural sophistication hereabouts.

Thanks, Jerome.

JWIt’s a pleasure, Justin.
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