A Touch of the Familiar

If there is any generic setting for short plays, writes the editor of a recent volume of such works, it's a restaurant. The built-in pauses that come with being seated, ordering and eating offer writers a clean structure in the often scary world of narrative. And the defined sense of place -- tables, chairs, ketchup bottles -- offers the audience a scene that's embraceably familiar.

A recognizable locale is one reason why, when the curtain rises on Jim Lehrer's new play, Chili Queen, we have no trouble knowing exactly where we are. Another reason is that Lehrer -- native Texan, veteran PBS newsman and writer of folksy novels and plays -- is so familiar with both his setting, a Chili Queen diner in East Texas, and the sort of people who would show up there. The winning entry in Stages's Texas Playwrights Festival, and Lehrer's fourth script, Chili Queen is really more of a successful character sketch than it is a play, but director Rob Bundy has polished the awkward story into a serviceable production.

This being a diner in East Texas, there is a tough waitress named Velma and a down-on- his-luck customer, Buddy. The story begins when Buddy accuses Velma of shortchanging him $10, something Velma denies. In a quick moment, the bumbling owner of the Chili Queen, Junior, reaches for a gun he keeps under the counter, Buddy wrestles for the weapon and everything falls apart. By the time anyone realizes what's happened, the gun is in Buddy's hands and he, rather reluctantly, is holding hostages. The media -- both broadcast and print -- descend on the story with their bag of metaphors in hand, offering crisis commentary. If this isn't the most ambitious dramatic setup, it is believable, and provides what Lehrer wants: a reason for Buddy and Velma to stay in the restaurant together.

What's likable in Chili Queen is its honest sense of humor: a sheriff who says "Bless, yes"; Velma's giddy reaction when she hears her name announced on the air by suave TV news anchor Chick Royal; and Buddy's disgust at Junior's peculiar invention, the chilisicle (a frozen hunk of chili on a Popsicle stick). There is, too, Lehrer's sharp wit in writing the part of Royal, an ever-so-slight cynicism from the newsman author about the newsman character. "Thanks for that," says Royal (played by Channel 13 anchor Bob Boudreaux, who alternates nights with fellow anchor Dave Ward) to an unseen reporter who has just offered a litany of unrelated hostage situations. "It has nothing to do with this report." What's less likable is dialogue that lapses into grade school banality: The overuse of the word "puke," as in worm puke and snake puke, is one rather painful example that winds through the play.

But when called on to make their characters' unwieldy situation plausible, Jim Parsons, as Buddy, and Carolyn Houston Boone, as Velma, do fine work. Both waitress and disgruntled customer, it becomes clear, are entranced by hearing their names on TV, and both mug for the camera when offered the opportunity. Parsons gives Buddy a sweet desperation that reflects nicely off of Boone's crusty, bitter Velma. And as Junior, Jef Johnson is wryly comic, an inspired small-businessman who still wears white gym socks with his slacks.

Lehrer's path for his two main characters is one that begins with self-pity and ends in an unlikely communion. As the news reports continue, Buddy and Velma develop an alliance, desperately wanting their moment in the spotlight to continue. That desperation is the play's core truth, the reason that its goofiness resonates with something deeper. "You're the star," Buddy says to Velma at one point, upon hearing her name in a news report. "No," Velma says, "you are." As twisted and lovely as that exchange is, it's sacrificed by the play's paint-by-numbers tragic ending.

Still, Chili Queen doesn't aspire to greatness. It's simply an unlikely confection that spins two well-drawn characters around a particular place at a particular time. As theater, it's an uneven and ultimately disappointing piece of comic work. As a slice of Texas life, though, it's a pretty good show.

Hamlet, in all the sprawling glory of its guilty monologues and tortured decisions, was meant to be edited for the stage. It is Shakespeare's most inefficient play, and yet it offers one of theater's most challenging roles, that of Hamlet himself. This post-adolescent, torn by his dead father's will for revenge and his own moral sense, must sidestep a variety of traps, feign madness and kill in cold blood. At Main Street, director Lauren Johnson has done some editing in her version of Hamlet by cleverly combining a handful of key scenes and, less cleverly, by casting the play entirely with women. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this production is that the cast's gender bending fails to affect the work at all.

Johnson's aim, she writes in the program notes, is to offer "a female interpretation of the [characters'] humanity [as] a new window through which we can view the play." Well, fine. That might have been remotely possible -- Hamlet is, after all, the story of a father's will and of a son's obligation -- had Johnson not cheated her own objective by casting a thin, boyish actress as Hamlet. This isn't the risky interpretation I was halfway hoping for; this is Hamlet in a roomful of women wearing mustaches. It's a bit perplexing, too, that the actress playing Hamlet is the cast's sole African-American. Are we supposed to address race as yet another reason for Hamlet's troubles? Or are we supposed to ignore it? Given Johnson's limp direction, it's hard to say.

Opening on an all-purpose palace set, the production glides along fairly well. For the most part, the sensibility is a traditional one. And to that end, Daria Dunn is a convincing Hamlet, though her interpretation is often limited to a righteous, angry tone and lacks the nuances of Hamlet's mental state. Dunn's restlessness, however, her pacing and her taut awareness fit the part nicely. With the disastrous exception of some comic moments -- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and the gravedigger's scene -- the production features some fine acting. Rebecca Tindel's Horatio is a masterfully understated performance. Focusing on her character's role as Hamlet's only confidant, Tindel often serves as the production's anchor, a beacon of honesty in a show that often loses its course.

For any Shakespeare play, the actors need to be prepared to tackle the long speeches, a matter that was apparently neglected here. The constant breathiness of the actors' lines suggests not only inadequate preparation, but sloppy craft. And there are wrong-headed character interpretations, too, such as a Claudius who wiggles her eyebrows like a silent movie villain, an Ophelia who shrieks her way through madness and a castle guard who never speaks above a mock horror whisper.

The central problem in Johnson's production, though, is that she doesn't follow through on her main conceit, that of a feminine reading of the play. Instead, what Main Street has come up with is a production of Hamlet that feels pasted together -- lacking either the power of a period production, or the political relevance of a contemporary one.

Chili Queen plays through June 1 at Stages, 3201 Allen Parkway, 527-8243; Hamlet plays through May 18 at Main Street Theater, 4617 Montrose, 524-6706.

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Megan Halverson