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Detours 

A lost highway and roads not taken

Wednesday, Aug 9 2006
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There was much quoting, in the recent obituaries for crime novelist Mickey Spillane, of I, the Jury’s notorious closing lines, with their tough-guy frisson of sex, blood and revenge. Overlooked, but far more revealing of the book’s mid-20th-century sensibilities, was this comparatively circumspect passage in which private eye Mike Hammer explains his disgust with homosexuals: “They were hiding behind the door when sexes were handed out. They got what was left over and not enough of it at that.” This perspective on gays was the American consensus in the 1940s, the time of Spillane’s novel, and forms the oppressive horizon of Zsa Zsa Gershick’s intriguing drama, Bluebonnet Court.

The play, premiering at the Hudson Mainstage, is set in 1944, when the tide of war has turned and Americans are already beginning to imagine the new world just around the corner. Helen Burke (Leslie Cohen), a New Yorker driving through Texas, listens to her car radio while a “marriage maven” and a preacher drawl advice through the speaker. The subjects of their imperatives seem like harmless stuff — marriage, peach cobbler and salvation — but subtly allude to an iron curtain separating Helen from the rest of society, for she is not only Jewish, but one of those people who supposedly hid behind the door when sexes were distributed.

Helen is also a survivor of sorts, a brash female journalist in a man’s profession, attired in slacks, jacket and fedora, and whose hands must always be occupied with a typewriter, a cigarette or a whiskey flask. After running her car off the road to avoid hitting a deer, she wanders into the Bluebonnet Motor Court, a sagging, sun-bleached motel sitting on the edge of Austin. Helen reluctantly resigns herself to staying here until her car is repaired, after which she can resume her trip to California, to a job writing for the movies and a tentative love affair with a Hollywood actress.

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It’s soon clear that Helen’s going to be stuck at the motor court and will endure all sorts of cultural indignities in this tidy metaphor for the stifling embrace of heartland life. And, sure enough, Helen is continually hunted down by the chummy (“You got that Roman nose!”) proprietress, Lila Jean (Jamey Hood), and bullied by Lila’s drunken war-vet husband, Roy Glenn (Jonathan Nail).

But she’s also smitten by their charwoman, Orla Mae (Dalila Ali Rajah), a young black woman with a passion for books. A relationship grows between Helen and Orla Mae, first as a bond of outsiders, then as a romance between two women. Bluebonnet Court is refreshing first for its absence of a modern, feel-good vocabulary. (The play takes place before lovers were “life partners” and blacks like Orla Mae were “people of color.”) Perhaps because it is so free of culturally sensitive speech, the play does not preach or pander. The story has its villains, but we never meet them — even Roy Glenn, whose drunken comments about Jews make Mel Gibson look like Bono, turns out to have an artist’s soul.

Sometimes Gershick’s play does strain credulity, especially when it seems as though nearly all its characters are gay. Bluebonnet Court also wobbles into melodrama now and then in Act 2. There’s a scene (or rather, the aftermath of one) involving a woman, Nanalu (Michelle Merring), who’s been savagely raped and beaten for “passing” for white, and here Gershick does break out the hankies, but luckily the evening does not revolve around the incident. (Perhaps the scene jars so much because Nanalu’s assault is the story’s most traumatic moment yet occurs offstage and to a secondary character. It also doesn’t help that in this production, the victim is played by an actor who just doesn’t seem light-skinned enough to have passed for Caucasian.)

Nevertheless, Gershick knows when to keep her play from overheating by filling it with cultural humor, from Helen’s explanation to Lila Jean that “schmuck” is “Yiddish for actor” to Helen’s shrugging acceptance of a ham sandwich from her clueless hostess. Gershick is also mindful of the story’s period, freely dispensing the bourbon and cigarettes that were the era’s social currency, while creating characters who are all the more believable for being fatalistic rather than defiant. Even the recurring pastiches of radio broadcasts, delivered by actors Jeanne Simpson and Andrew Thacher, temper their innate nostalgia with an underlying chill of conformity.

Director Kelly Ann Ford has put together a fine production, powered by Cohen’s and Rajah’s excellent performances, which bring to life a tenuous, aching attraction between their two characters. Ford gets superb technical support across the board. Joel Daavid’s multitiered set makes efficient use of the relatively small stage, while Kathi O’Donohue’s nuanced lighting plot brings character to the eponymous motor court, and Bob Blackburn’s sound design summons the soundtrack of a vanished America. Finally, Shon LeBlanc’s spot-on costumes lend an authenticity to the story without turning the actors into clotheshorses. Some may question how anyone could fall for a play that ends with its homosexual, interracial lovers literally riding off into the sunset, but here we must quote Mickey Spillane’s famous expert on all things gay: “It was easy.”

The American road, we’ve always been told, is both a great emancipator and a hanging judge — the asphalt river of freedom and the stern tester of wills. In Unfinished American Highwayscape #9 & 32, playwright Carlos Murillo’s ensemble piece premiering at the Theater@Boston Court, eight individuals are driving somewhere in the American night, each burdened by problems comic and ominous. James (Patrick Thomas O’Brien) is a high school biology teacher whose true passion is his magnet collection; Delia (Carlease Burke) is a woman leaving her singer husband (Karim Prince), whose blues hit bearing her name haunts her every time she turns on the radio; a disillusioned evangelist, David (Will Collyer), writes letters to his sister Emma (Meghan Maureen McDonough); Amy (Ashley West Leonard), a woman on the run with a kid, gets spooked by the sight of abandoned cars; Samuel (Matt Foyer) is the son of a dead scrap dealer and of Eleanor (Casey Kramer), who presides over her late, unfaithful husband’s main legacy, a giant junk sculpture.

This steel-and-rubber assemblage also dominates set designer Sibyl Wickersheimer’s fragmented stage and serves as an ambiguous lodestone. Early on, the ensemble switches on flashlights around it in the theater’s darkened gloom, invoking the cars and the roads they travel. It’s a more effective image than the sculpture itself, and director Jessica Kubzansky’s shadowy mise en scène is most memorable when it’s darkest. (Her midnight world is ably punctuated by Jeremy Pivnick’s dim shafts of light and John Zalewski’s jangling sound design.)

Murillo’s narrative, however, takes a while for us to comprehend and comes together only at the very end, when the eight characters are fleetingly paired up. (One character quotes Fitzgerald about there being no second acts in American lives, and, as if taking heed of this, Murillo confines his piece to one act.) For 100 minutes, the drivers talk to us, sing, recount histories and ruminate back and forth in an evening of presentational performance that has some tender moments but never really adds up to a sum greater than its parts.

Perhaps our expectations were raised too high, too early. Highwayscape’s long title is joined by an equally lengthy subtitle: The Broken Tractor Graveyard. The compound title’s free-associative quality hearkens back to the apotheosis of free association, the 1960s (“Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) and to that era’s rebellious romance with The Road. However, here there’s little sense of our insurgent passion with spaces and the wide-open roads that thread through them. Murillo’s characters are not the anarchic highway spirits of Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey, but small people bedeviled by life’s petty indignities and destiny’s larger insults. There’s nothing wrong with this, but viewers will feel as though they’ve sat on the business end of an artistic bait and switch. It’s a dead end any way you look at it.?

BLUEBONNET COURT | By ZSA ZSA GERSHICK | At Hudson Mainstage Theater, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood | Through August 27 | (323) 960-7721

UNFINISHED AMERICAN HIGHWAYSCAPE #9 & 32 | By CARLOS MURILLO | Theater @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena | Through September 3 | (626) 683-6883

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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