Beer Nuts

About his new play Meat/BAR, playwright and Infernal Bridegroom Productions artistic director Jason Nodler has said it's all true except the facts. Sure enough, the grungy neighborhood hangout at the center of the play looks and sounds like most any dive in Montrose. Darts, longnecks and the usual oddball suspects occupy the place (his kooky, disenfranchised characters say things like, "I don't wear no clothes with words on them"), and there's a certain Cheers-in-the-new-millennium predictability to the whole scene. In spite of -- or maybe because of -- the familiarity, Meat/BAR (which Nodler also directs) ranks as one of the funniest and most entertaining plays IBP has produced in years.

The hysterical collection of wannabes and ne'er-do-wells who populate the bar are the best part of the show. Skinny, bespectacled Arthur (Cary Winscott) and bulldog Doug (Noel Bowers) are the sort of sad sacks who anchor themselves to the end of the bar and carry on all night in the hopes that they might somehow get lucky. They guzzle beer and shoot darts, riffing off each other's philosophical observations on everything from voting (it's for suckers and South Africans) to fucking (everyone's always thinking about it). Nodler's dead-on ear for dialogue is matched by Winscott's and Bowers's performances. These two are the ultimate oxymoron -- the thinking man's Dumb and Dumber. Winscott's Arthur, wearing fragile gold-rimmed glasses perched on his birdlike nose, speaks with a stutter that sounds heartbreakingly real. And Bowers, who's so strong it makes one wonder why his gifts haven't been more fully utilized by IBP, is a hot-to-trot troglodyte whom no woman in her right mind would want.

Of course, the women in this bar aren't exactly in their right minds. Lisa Marie Singerman practically walks off with the show when she stomps into the bar as Shelly, an angry office worker in a dull suit and running shoes. She's got the "cancer of jobs" and wants somebody to remind her "why the fuck" she comes to this bar in the first place. She'll tell anyone who hits on her to "fuck the hell off" and then shout, "Hey, dickless, leave me the fuck alone," when he comes back for more. Loving every off-balance minute of her time on stage as this bilious black heart, Singerman is unstoppable. And Tek Wilson is altogether scary as an "asshole poet" who saunters in late at night looking for an open mike. She wears her Wayne Newton gimme cap turned backward, chain-smokes and snarls at the other "poet" in the bar.

Howard (Kyle Sturdivant) is the saddest wannabe of them all. Plopping reams of his own work down on his table, he proceeds to try to write in the middle of all the mayhem. Full of high drama, Howard feels like he's the writer of the bar -- and so he's understandably crushed when owner Mr. Meatbar (Charlie Scott) asks Teddy to pen a screenplay about the place.

Teddy (Troy Schulze, Houston Press assistant Night & Day editor) is the character Nodler claims is most like him. While he has forsaken Meat/BAR in favor of drinking at home, he returns to the watering hole after Mr. Meatbar asks him to tell its story. With writerly distance, Teddy spends most of his time there drinking and watching everyone else get slowly soused as the night goes on. He does hit on a girl with moderate success and scores cocaine at one point, but mostly he sits back and observes.

It's Teddy's monologue that opens the story. We meet him in his apartment. Chain-smoking and talking to us from a beat-up armchair, he remembers the events that led up to the night in the bar we're about to see: "It was one of those days; things were going down." He makes oblique references to 9/11, saying the country had been in "national mourning." All this is told through a quiet sneer of irony. The I'm-so-weary-of-the-idiotic-enthusiasm-of-the-world stance has become too familiar in the IBP canon. And though Nodler's considerable writing skill is evident in the opening monologue, it's a relief to get to the actual bar and encounter characters who aren't afraid to express real feelings. They may be the "eye rollers" of the world, as one character puts it, but at least they aren't hobbled by an adolescent need to be too cool to emote.

In fact, it is this fear of sentimentality that undermines the story at the center of Nodler's play. Mr. Meatbar is clearly upset about something in his life, and soon enough he goes out into the night to find some answers. Scott, who is very funny in the opening moments, creates a compelling character out of Meatbar despite the fact that we really aren't given enough information to know who this man is. His story, in the end, is reduced to a monologue told by a street girl (Rebecca Lowe) who appears out of nowhere and is saddled with a moment on stage that taxes believability. Nodler just seems to run out of steam when he gets to the serious moments. And in his seeming fear of sentimentality, he turns maudlin.

But even with its weak moments, Nodler's show is a terrific ride. Character-driven and full of some of the best dialogue on any stage this year, Meat/BAR captures the Houston nightlife in all its hysterical, lowbrow glory.

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Lee Williams