Plan your weekend: Two plays worth seeing

There was no room in the print edition this week or last to review all the shows I saw over the past few weeks, so I wanted to give a shout-out to two that deserves to be seen during this, their closing weekends: True West at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas and Creditors at Broken Gears Theatre Project.

True West, Sam Shapard’s modern reinterpretation of the Cain and Abel myth, pits Austin (Mike Schrader), a dour, responsible, by-the-rules screenwriter, against Lee (Gregory Lush), his manipulative numbskull petty crook brother. Lee considers himself an average American, which doesn’t speak very well of our culture. Austin, though, it just as deluded, with lofty, high-brow ideas for a script he’s pitching to an independent producer (T.A. Taylor). Lee perceived Hollywood as no better than he — a hustle is a hustle. Slowly, the brothers’ roles shift, creating tension and ample amounts of comedy.

Lee is a perfectly awful character, the unbridled id with access to a car. He uses his own version of logic illogically (think all those “deep” conversations lorded over by the preachy morons on reality TV) and you feel for Austin’s plight. Lush handles that dichotomy of amiable and infuriating expertly, and brings an aggressive physicality to the part (he really destroys that typewriter with a golf club — I hate to see a classic so brutalized). If Schrader’s desperation is less engaging, it’s not due to him, but to Austin’s self-destructiveness.

Shepard isn’t performed as often as he deserves to be. His plays don’t fit in easy pigeonholes of comedy, drama, romance. He’s all things, and True West is a superior achievement.

Creditors is a  very different play in many way — 90 years older than True West — but no less relevant. This taut three-character drama is a shockingly contemporary and breathlessly intimate psychological thriller. Although it pre-dates Freud, Strindberg’s dissection of the human will is unnervingly accurate.

A frail artist (Evan Fuller) recovers at a resort with the support of a fellow traveler (Elias Taylorson), who probes the man about his unfulfilling relationship with his wife (Meredith Morton). With laser accuracy, he dissects the dynamics of their relationship and devises a ploy for making him see the pointlessness of his marriage. But things aren’t what they full appear to be.

Broken Gears, located in a rustic 30-seat theater across from the Grapevine Bar, is the perfect setting for this claustrophobic investigation into revenge and suspicion. The characters rarely talk above a hushed conversation, which creates unnerving closeness not just to the actors, but to the emotions. Director Rene Moreno keeps it clean and unfussy, with minimal movement that seems not stiff but still.

All the actors are exceptional, with Fuller seeming to undergo actual asthmatic attacks and Taylorson’s professorial demeanor wholly convincing. SO intense is the action that at a recent performance, a sudden crashing noise offstage (intentional) caused the entirety of the audience to startle. It grabs you by the short hairs. Catch it before it’s gone.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Hey, hey, hey, Paula

IN FOR A PAULA, IN FOR A POUNDSTONE | The queermedian plays the Majestic Theater Friday, Feb. 25.

After 30 years, comedian Paula Poundstone still keeps ’em rolling in the aisles

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Paula Poundstone celebrates her middlebrow tastes. It’s probably what has kept her a popular comedian for more than 30 years. While others have crashed and burned with edgy, sometimes alienating humor, Poundstone represents the everyman. Or everywoman.

Take, for instance, that quintessential high-brow cultural undertaking: The opera.

“Just talking to you is the closest I’ve ever been to the opera,” Poundstone says on the phone from her home. “I’m glad it’s there and I feel uplifted by knowing someone likes it, but have no interest in it myself. Like, I find it sad to see a folk art museum close down, but will I go to a folk art museum? I will not. ‘Ooh, look! An entire village constructed of broom straw!’ Not my thing. So, opera is on my list of things I haven’t experienced that I’m not sure I’d like to do — like butter sculpture.”

Butter sculpture? You mean, like what you see every year at the State Fair of Texas? That’s exactly what she is referring to.

“I was just talking to my kids about it yesterday,” says the fair-going veteran. “It’s hard for me to understand why someone would learn that skill. You can’t give it as a gift. How do you make a living doing butter sculpture? With ice sculpture, at least there’s an event and there’s a charm watching it melt.” But who would stick a knife into a gigantic dairy version of Elvis? Not Paula.

These observations are hardly earth-shattering insights into the human condition … but then again, maybe they are. Poundstone’s organic, randomly quaint stream-of-consciousness sense of humor is ticklishly grounded in every life. She talks about being the single gay mom of three kids, ages 12 to 20 — and one with limited domestic skills at that. (“I’m not much of a cook. I can heat water and make salad and it pretty much ends there. I once called my math teacher to ask how to make a baked potato,” she says.) Her jokes are sometimes about the bizarre daily occurrences that make up her life, but they could just as easily make up yours. And there are no gimmicks — it’s just her personality peeking through, a befuddled but optimistic take on life.

“I’m lucky in that everywhere I’ve been, I have a good time,” she says. She even likes coming to Texas, despite its conservative rep. She always seems to find an audience.

“There’s no area that’s entirely one thing,” she says. “Whatever the size of the city, the people who would be amused by my point of view tend to gather on that night.”

That night in Dallas will be Feb. 25, when she returns for a show at the Majestic Theatre.

But Dallas isn’t even a hard market for her. Heck, even in Utah — often regarded as the most conservative state in the union — you can find the gay-friendly crowds. And you don’t even have to look that hard.

“I did an outdoor festival [in Salt Lake City] and they were wild,” she recalls. “A man dressed as a woman presented me with a gold purse filled with items they thought I’d need to survive there. This guy was so flamboyant, it was kinda jaw-dropping. But [the crowd] couldn’t have loved it more.”

Likewise, Poundstone says even gay-accepting communities like Provincetown, Mass., have their pockets of closed-mindedness.

“P’town has an enormous gay community — its like you’re in some sort of a production when you’re there. But it’s still old New England, and there are people who have been there forever but still haven’t caught on, these fisherman who think it’s a coincidence or something gay that a man walking down the street looks like a lady. They don’t seem to realize what’s risen up all around them.”

Poundstone herself is aware of what has risen up around her. She started in standup in 1979 or 1980 (she can’t even recall which), in the heyday of comedy clubs like The Improv. She weathered the circuit, building up a fan base enthusiastic about the observational style of comedy she and others of her era (Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres, etc.) pioneered.

“It was so much about time and place and had nothing to do with me,” she modestly claims. “The fact I did it there and then made a huge difference in what I was able to do. I worked really hard and I still work really hard, but I didn’t plan and make decisions that led me on a certain path. I worry that my kids don’t get that, that my formula won’t work again.”

Maybe not. But as long as it worked once, we’re good.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Feb. 18, 2011.

—  John Wright