"What happened was this: . . ."
These words begin many a scene in Texarkana Waltz, Louis Broome's charming, disarming play about family violence and regional attitude, presented by Circle X Theater Company at the Los Angeles Playhouse. You couldn't demand a more straightforward annunciation, although perhaps you could ask for a more forthcoming story. A sprawling account of two adult children's exorcism of parental demons, this Waltz too often sidesteps into easy parody while demonstrating a special fondness for the sound of its own poetry - at the expense of its message about personal redemption.
It begins promisingly enough. Eddie and Emma (Burton Curtis and Cindy Basco) are a fun-loving Oklahoma couple with a daughter named Dallas and a boy called Houston (Alice Dodd and Paul Morgan Stetler). The parents sure love fun and each other, all right - until one night a drunken Eddie inexplicably slashes Emma's throat with a broken beer bottle. That fatal gesture begins a family diaspora, and the next time we find its members they exist both miles and years apart from each other: A considerably more sober Eddie delivers the remainder of his lines from an electric chair; Dallas has matured into a moody, rootless young woman and Houston, traumatized by his mother's murder, into an autistic lad who, once released from a sanatorium, continues an inner dream life built around a childhood hero named Cowboy Bob (Todd Beadle).
Emma's still out there - as a frightening apparition who, in a Southwestern send-up of Hamlet, appears to Houston on the prairie of his tormented mind, and goads the boy toward murdering his wife-killing father. Houston apprehensively undertakes this mission, traversing a fantasy desert with Cowboy Bob and tracking down a Wild West-outlaw version of his daddy - while, in the real world, he is steered about and cared for by his sister, Dallas, and her lover, Morgan (Dina Gardner).
Texarkana Waltz takes on a lot of subjects and ideas, and this fearless appetite is both its strength and its principal weakness, a contradiction that is borne in almost every aspect of the production. On the one hand, for example, it boasts Jonathan Westerberg and Little Jack Melody's poignant original music, performed live; on the other, the "Texarkana Baby" theme song is never developed beyond the first couple of words, and so its endless repetition guarantees it will stick in your head a long time in an irritating way, and also reinforces a feeling that this play is satisfied with only delivering the opening bars of a human dilemma.
The story hops back and forth in time: The program notes tell us that Eddie's perch on his electrified throne occurs in 1977, which, given his kids' ages, means the play's opening courtship between him and Emma must take place about a decade before. We presume the dominant, central action (Houston's fantasia of slaying Eddie in a gunfight) takes place roughly in the present - long after Eddie's execution - while flashbacks of the killer's parents could be any time. Structurally, this is a smart strategy on Broome's part, making for an arresting roundelay of scenes and personality progressions. (How many plays, after all, chart the progress of a smoker - Eddie's dad - from simple cough to larynx amplifier?) The problem is that Broome tends to linger too long in any one of these time zones, entrusting some of his minor characters (especially Eddie's parents, played by William Salyers and Laura Kellogg Sandberg) to deliver a little more biographical poetry than we really need to hear.
But it is probably the autistic Houston's search for Eddie that is the weakest part of this play and Circle X's production. For one thing, both Stetler and Beadle are rather wispy presences onstage, yet Houston's part demands something more than vulnerability, and Cowboy Bob needs to be a towering, intimidating figure - otherwise there's little impact when Houston eventually displaces him during the play's oedipal apocalypse. Also, the story could afford to spend extra time with the more interesting character Dallas, who, after all, endures the double burden of returning to the home where she witnessed her mother's slaying, while caring for her mentally absent brother. Strongly played by Dodd, Dallas is a real person moving about in a real world without the aid of Houston's cowboy costume and toy six-gun. She's also trying to hold together a lesbian relationship in a part of the country not renowned for tolerance in such matters.
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Allison Narver's direction matches Broome's writing in both its ambition and its tendency to overindulge parody at the cost of the characters' humanity. Most of her actors play outsize figures, which befits the sweep of Broome's post-frontier vision, but this also ensures that Stetler's low-key performance creates a charisma vacuum. Narver's interpretation is perfectly enunciated by Gary Smoot's crafty set design, which includes a big-sky backdrop and pneumatic cacti that inflate and wilt according to the scene requirements. The set is dominated by a painted floor depicting the states of Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas, complete with the kind of Route 66 imagery of cattle and oil wells you'd find on aprons, scarves or tablecloths sold in tourist shops 40 or 50 years ago.
But while Smoot's antiquely mechanical stage of surprises for Circle X's earlier production of Great Men of Science, Nos. 21 & 22 so perfectly captured, with its pulleys and hinges, Glen Berger's Enlightenment mood, here it only forces us to ask just where, today, do we normally encounter such pictographic tablecloths, aprons and scarves? The answer, of course, is in kitsch shops along Melrose Avenue and in West Hollywood's camp boutiques. Even Hous- ton's Cowboys-'n'-Injuns obsession is a little too retro for someone who grew up long after America's Cowboy Bobs had faded from popularity and when the only cowboys capturing the public imagination were those roaming the range along Broadway between 42nd and 47th streets. In other words, Smoot's stage "map," like the Old West of Houston's imagination, is not something current - and wasn't even current during the time of Eddie and Emma's courting. Instead, it suggests a quaint and curious terrain whose inhabitants are ultimately on display - there for us to smile upon knowingly or to snicker at, however gently.
Texarkana Waltz, let me make clear, is not in the business of hick bashing or trailer-park burning. In fact, there's one scene in which Dallas chides Morgan for finding her grandmother's trailer quaint and white-trashy. Still, both Broome's script and Narver's direction occasionally succumb to the temptation to ridicule easy targets. Nowhere is this truer than during one dispensable scene in which Dallas, Houston and Morgan visit a chapel and become audience to Father Bob (Beadle), formerly the prison chaplain who ministered to Eddie, now a flamboyant, ranting fool - exactly the kind we encounter in many a parody of rural or Southern life.
In the end, Texarkana Waltz looks and sounds good, but mistakes Marlboro Country mythology for something more than it is. Circle X is not alone, for Circle West has also gotten into the act, offering, at 2100 Square Feet, John Bishop's The Great, Great, Grandson of Jedediah Kohler, in which a lost soul tries to assert himself in the modern world by invoking and interacting with the cinematic ghost of a cowboy ancestor. The trouble with this return to America's psychic frontier is that the metaphors keep getting in the way of redemption.