The set-up: In Tribute,Scotty Templeton, an over-the hill actor and producer who has failed as a family man, is visited by his semi-estranged son, Jud, as they struggle to build a relationship. The kicker is that Scotty has just received some very bad medical news about his health.
The execution: This play is overtly designed to tug at your heartstrings, and Bernard Slade is just the playwright to do it. He has crafted a plot that builds, and pays off in an emotional finale, but the winding path that takes you there is long, and a bit tortured, like Scotty himself.
Scotty is glib, self-centered, lascivious, quick to take offense and lash out, a bundle of insecurities, and worried about sexual prowess. He is also warm-hearted, loyal, talented, and always ready with a quip.
Therein lies the problem, as Scotty uses the quips to avoid intimacy, shun seriousness, and divert any conversation once it heads into the dangerous arena of truth. The quips are rarely really funny, and this is less of a comedy than one might expect from the author of Same Time Next Year, as well as several hit television series.
Jim Salners is a gifted actor with great range and versatility, saddled here with the difficult task of portraying Scotty, a demanding role that has him onstage almost the entire time. Salners finds the rhythm in the character, and finds his heart, but never quite locates the soul the playwright failed to provide. We see the surface, and it is a bit irritating, as the consistent ploy of making everything a joke wears thin pretty rapidly. Slade has written a buffoon, a clown, while I suspect he intended to create a man we could admire and love.
That is suggested by the frame of the story, a tribute to Scotty on his birthday, organized by family and friends, to which the play returns episodically. This structure provides the gift of Elizabeth Marshall Black as Hillary, a reformed hooker thanking Scotty for a benefit he arranged for her. Black is gorgeous, and gets a chance to show her acting chops in a later scene.
Nicky Mondellini plays the very attractive Maggie, Scotty's ex-wife and mother of Jud, and she is excellent indeed, even surfing her way through an embarrassing mercy hump for Scotty, fortunately played offstage. Jami Hughes plays Dr. Gladys Petrelli, trim and sophisticated, who makes a number of house calls to persuade Scotty to undergo treatment.
Scotty's best friend Lou Daniels is played by Jeffrey S. Lane, and he is excellent in his scenes with Scotty, and with Jud as well, but as master of ceremonies of the tribute, Lane speaks so slowly, apparently to show sincerity, he would have been given the hook in vaudeville days.
The younger contingent distinguishes itself - Kyle Cameron plays Jud, and finds the right balance between rebellion and concern, conveying both the awkwardness of youth and its tyrannical judgments, and the willingness to find a rapprochement with a disappointing, and disappointed, father. Katrina Ellsworth plays Sally, a young girl Scotty tries to interest Jud in, and she is remarkable, sounding all the right notes, and creating an attractive, shrewd, likable character and infusing the play with reality in her all-too-brief moments.
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Slade's rich skills come to its fruition in the final scene, as the son and father embrace at the tribute, and it is heart-warming indeed, and well-worth waiting for, in a play that badly needs trimming. The set by Trey Otis is a handsome duplex one could easily envy, and it contains an amusing surprise in itself.
The entire production is replete with talent, including a montage of photos that works surprisingly well. The excellent direction is by Walter Baker, who keeps the pace going, though he might light a fire under the slow-speaking Lane. This 1978 play, which starred Jack Lemmon on B'way, has been updated by topical references, including mention of the Kardashians, which gets the expected laughs.
The verdict: An award-winning playwright explores how a show business veteran faces life-threatening medical news, while seeking to mend fences with an estranged son, in an interesting and multi-talented production that comes within striking distance of solving the play's inherent problem of having a buffoon at its core.
Tribute continues through May 26, Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline Road. For information or ticketing, call 281-583-7573 or contact www.texasrep.com.