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First Church of Texaco: An Unlikely Play With Gifted Actors

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The set-up:

A highly successful corporate tycoon returns to the abandoned Texaco gas station in Blessing, Texas, in which he grew up, and hires the local librarian to be his secretary, while fighting a hostile takeover of his corporation. Complications ensue as the librarian seeks to use him as surrogate pastor for the community, and to help heal a 15-year old runaway girl. It is 1987.

The execution:

A long introductory scene establishes that the tycoon is rude and insensitive, insecure, and a bully, as he browbeats a more junior executive. Craig Griffin portrays Stanley Presley, the magnate, and is quite good, though the role is that of a caricature, with almost no range permitted. Blake Weir plays the junior executive, Brad, and captures the requisite toadying without losing his dignity, and conveys an intelligence and sensibility that is appealing, though this is thrown to the winds in Act Two as a trade-off for some melodramatic hijinks.

Things perk up when the librarian Alice Mann enters, pretty, with big hair, spunky, and so nice that one could easily want to spend considerable time with her, perhaps 50 or 60 years. Christy Watkins nails this role. Almost all of the rest of the long first act is Alice and Stanley engaging in verbal misunderstandings, and Alice's charm and ebullience has to overcome Stanley's unflagging rudeness. In this scene severe implausibilities rear their ugly heads, and it becomes clear that disbelief must be suspended to enjoy the goings-on; the audience had no trouble doing this, and I made an effort. At the end of the first act, the waif wanders in, as though from another play - her presence provides filler material, and serves to document a miraculous coincidence that provides a note of contrived spirituality.

In Act Two, flurries of activity occur. A gun plays a large part - most of the characters get to brandish it - a $15,000 check is torn up, Stanley undergoes a Damoscene conversion, and Brad allows ambition to supplant judgment. And romance blossoms, unlikely though this may seem. It turns out that Stanley and Alice are contemporaries, though he appears to be considerably older.

The set by is magnificent in its unpretentiousness, deliberately downscale, admirably suited to movement, and far more authentic than the script. Scenic Design is by Mark A. Lewis and Properties Design is by Katharine Hatcher. The lighting by Andrew Vance works well, but the event of unseen townsfolk arriving in pick-ups for a church service desperately needs the illusion of headlights to relieve its drab flatness.

The acting throughout is first-rate, with great comic timing, and intern Bethany Eggleston is excellent as the waif, with great, darting movements, though her diction might be sharpened. The playwright is Andrew William Librizzi and he is prolific and heavily experienced. He has written a comedy without feeling the need to provide motivations, and this level of comedy can have a very appreciative audience, as here. The man on my right laughed almost continuously, and I did on occasion, as Watkins can make even a line like "Mann is spelled with two 'n's" hilarious.

There is a brief sermonette shoehorned in at the end, as Presley addresses his board of directors and exhorts them in an overtly religious speech, as unlikely as most of the play. Griffin is quite effective here, though he is unpersuasive as a shatter-toy in his conversion scene. The comedy is deftly directed by Jennifer Dean, who keeps the action moving and allows the comic timing of savvy actors to carry it.

The verdict:

Gifted actors bring an inferior play to comic life, and unlikely motivations seem not to interfere with huge audience enjoyment.

The First Church of Texaco continues through March 17, from A. D. Players, at Grace Theater, 2710 W. Alabama. For information or ticketing, call 713-526-2721 or contact www.adplayers.org.

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