Actor-playwright Keith Stevenson is one lucky fellow, having a top-flight ensemble to write comedies for; and having a director, Guillermo Cienfuegos, with such a sympathetic comprehension of the strands threaded through his humor; and, to top it all, being able to act in a pivotal role in his own plays. Stevenson is Pacific Resident Theatre's answer to Rogue Machine's actor-playwright John Pollono, whose Small Engine Repair transferred to New York earlier this year. Is it mere coincidence that Pollono's wife, Jennifer, an actress in her husband's plays (and others), makes a key appearance in Stevenson's latest comedy at PRT, The Unfryable Meatness of Being? It would be surprising if these two actor-scribes didn't at least know of each other.
Stevenson has sculpted a trio of comedies from his native West Virginia; two are on display at PRT, where Stevenson has been involved in the company's playwriting lab since 1998. Out There on Fried Meat Ridge Road is a 2011 effort now being revived. Four of that play's five characters reappear in the world premiere of The Unfryable Meatness of Being, played by the same actors — along with a bevy of new characters and actors. (You probably can tell from the title of the third play, A Fried Meat Christmas, that it's a seasonal entry.)
On Sundays, you can see Ridge Road (a 75-minute one-act) and Unfryable Meatness (130 minutes, with intermission) back-to-back; though each is an autonomous work, the former sets up the latter. Both plays stem from the premise of a sad-sack cuckold from Maine, Mitchell (Neil McGowan), who's pining for the girlfriend who dumped him for a local dentist. Said dentist is a career adulterer currently betraying his sixth wife. Mitch finds himself stranded in a West Virginia hamlet with no job and no car. He winds up sharing the motel room with burly, gentle, generous hick JD (Stevenson) who claims, and sincerely believes, that his father is Jesus Christ.
Add to the mix the motel's cadaverous owner, Flip (Michael Prichard), who rifles through women's underwear drawers and has a sexual fetish for Japanese geishas crushing caterpillars with their shoes. Flip also is consumed by the notion, untethered from reality, that JD and Mitch are initiating a gay affair. (To demonstrate the open heart beneath his cranky veneer, Flip keeps banging out his philosophy that people can do whatever they like in private.)
Meanwhile, motel resident and meth addict Marlene (Kendra McKay, whose tattered, sexy performance brilliantly captures at least seven of the nine layers of hell) is falling apart emotionally due to the infidelity of her boyfriend, Tommy (Alex Fernandez), a thug from New Jersey. Marlene is a painter, and Tommy a poet, so these are raw-tempered folk bonded by the liberal arts.
These are white-trash comedies (in the tradition of playwrights Justin Tanner and Del Shores), and both are set in a dumpy motel room (vividly designed by Norman Scott with gleeful attention to the tawdry, stained, charmless architecture, zealously cluttered with the characters' rotting detritus). Stevenson's aim as a playwright is largely to traffic in hillbilly stereotypes while undercutting those stereotypes — usually by having the stereotypical characters refer to the clichés that define them. This doesn't make them any less clichéd but it does make them self-aware clichés, which gives them an intelligence and humanity they might otherwise lack.
Stevenson reaps the further benefit of actors so well-suited to their roles and capable of careening with scarcely a bump from rage to tranquility and back again, further enhancing the illusion of depth.
Stevenson has a conundrum that merely seeps up through the grime of Fried Meat Ridge Road, and all but decimates Unfryable Meatness. The playwright is, at heart, a sketch comedian. He creates hysterically funny tableaux and small moments.
During a confrontation between meth-head Marlene and thug Tommy, Marlene remarks that her own sister finds his poetry "derivative" — a word she elongates into the deep plunge of a spear. Tommy, a guy who has no trouble brandishing a pistol stolen from the local sheriff, collapses against the wall, undone, trying to repair the damage to his self-esteem. In another snippet, squeamish, diminutive Mitchell finally stands up to Tommy, boasting that he's not scared of him. Tommy promptly places the gun at Mitchell's temple. "OK," Mitchell responds, "now I'm scared."
These are jokes that crackle in the moment, but longer-form narrative requires prioritizing authenticity over quips. Fried Meat Ridge Road comes through the glib barrage of one-liners more than less intact. Not so the considerably longer Unfryable Meatness, which focuses on two plots. First, the courtship of dithering Mitchell and impetuous, violent, tender-hearted Marlene, a courtship threatened by the return of Mitchell's ex-girlfriend Bridgett (Pollono). Then there's a Faustian parody concerning a mysterious, Danish cult leader named Dr. Jorgen (the very funny Brad Greenquist), his perfectly choreographed chorus girls (Joan Chodorow and Carole Weyers, both in top form), and Jorgen's attempt to wrest JD's soul.
It would appear that in his latest work, Stevenson had far more delight contriving his plots and jokes than meeting the responsibilities that come with a full-length comedy, which include differentiating between his keen sense of absurdity and dramatic outcomes that are merely ridiculous.
OUT THERE ON FRIED MEAT RIDGE ROAD | By Keith Stevenson | Presented by Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice | Sun., 3 p.m.; through Sept. 7 | (310) 822-8392 | pacificresidenttheatre.com
THE UNFRYABLE MEATNESS OF BEING | By Keith Stevenson | Presented by Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice | Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4:30 p.m.; through Sept. 7 | (310) 822-8392 | pacificresidenttheatre.com