The set up:
Written by Sarah Ruhl in 2003, Late: A Cowboy Song is an early effort by a playwright on the cusp of becoming one of the most celebrated names in modern American theater. A quick glance through the reception of her later plays reads like a writer's dream list of accolades. Two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist? Check. Tony Award nominee for Best New play? Check. A Pen American Award? Yup, that too. This ticking of tribute boxes also includes The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize a Helen Hayes Award and the prestigious and lucrative MacArthur "Genius Grant". So yes, the gal's got game as they say.
Or at least she came to have it.
It wasn't until 2004 with the production of Clean House, a fanciful and fantastical romantic comedy about a Brazilian cleaning woman with a gift for comedy, that Ruhl's work became widely lauded. In fact, Late: A Cowboy Song, a play about an ill-matched dichotomous young couple and the mysterious gender bending female cowboy that threatens to undo them, didn't have critics widely singing her praises at all. Including me, who has previously described the play as irrational to the point of tedium and lacking any real affection for anything other than Ruhl's beauty with words.
But the value in paying attention to a marquee playwright's sophomoric efforts is to see the genesis of what gets perfected into greatness with more mature outputs. In this case, Ruhl's trademark sprinkling of the surreal and her ability to create characters she describes as occupying "the real world and also a suspended state."
The characters Ruhl works with here are childhood sweethearts Mary (Lindsay Ehrhardt) and Crick (Jason Duga), now a young couple living together somewhere in Pittsburgh in a pre-Internet/cell phone era. Young not only in age but emotional maturity, (Mary runs to her mother's house the minute a fight breaks out, Crick thinks sex solves everything) the couple share a birthday and not much else.
Crick is obsessively tied to the tangible while Mary frets endlessly on the what ifs. Crick spends hours looking at art, Mary looks at works fleetingly without reverence. Mary clears her head by taking meandering walks and making soup, Crick watches the same old movies over and over again. Mary works and has some money, Crick is jobless and has none. Mary is always late, Crick is always waiting for her.
With so little in common it's a wonder these two have been able to be in the same room together all these years. Yet in Ruhl's hands, as depicted in a series of domestic snapshots, the couple not only stays together, but apparently they still have the hots for each other. We witness a cycle of several groping scenes that eventually culminate in a pregnancy and marriage between the two.
While parenthood is just the ticket for Crick who finally steps up and gets a job as an art museum security guard (depicted in an amusing job interview monologue that foretells a disastrous ending to the gig), family life only pushes Mary deeper down the rabbit hole. Not helping the tension between the couple is Ruhl's head-scratching and utterly unnecessarily wedging of the surreal/political into the show by giving the couple a hermaphrodite child who is surgically altered to become a girl.
Instead of basking in the glow of complicated motherhood with a child she calls a 'sort of' daughter, Mary instead strikes up a somewhat secretive and intense friendship with Red (Sara Ornelas), a girl the couple went to school with years ago who is now fairly androgynous and living the life of a cowboy outside the city limits. It's the attraction between Mary and Red that is the real story here and it's here that Ruhl finally gives us something credible to sink our teeth into. Elegantly written with soothing warm honey comfort, Red is the opposite of Crick. Unshowy and contented in her silences, charismatic and assured, it's no wonder Mary falls for Red and can finally let her anxieties go.
Played with confident simplicity and a beautiful lazy smile by Ornelas, we all are made to fall in love with Red and finally get to see glimpses of Ruhl's ability to write beautifully affecting yet simple dialogue. "There's no shadow over anything sitting here not talking," says Mary to Red in one of the many engaging sexually charged but platonic scenes between the two women. As Mary spends more time with Red, she finds it harder to leave her company and becomes purposefully late in returning home to her increasingly jealous/angry husband and infant daughter.
Director Bree Bridger does her best to navigate the action between Ruhl's unconvincing realism and lovely but ultimately underdeveloped romanticism. Bridger's wins are her ability to find the humor in Ruhl's script which paints Mary and Crick as unsophisticated and frankly not that smart. Bridger also does a fine job of staging Red's interstitial whimsical short songs. Strumming a guitar and cryptically singing about things like dried up cacti or Mary's baby, Red takes the stage in song several times throughout the show in what could have been just another surreal distraction. Instead, Bridger cleverly keeps the background action onstage in dimmed motion so that we can at least attempt to tie the lyrics and the story together.
Where the direction fails however is unfortunate. A late in the show scene where Mary and Crick experience what should be a frenetic whirlwind years' worth of holiday celebrations is clunky to the point of sapping all the gleeful energy out of the exercise. It's a notable shame as it's probably the only worthy scene between the two characters in the entire play. Additionally, the confines of the small space that have cast members schlepping Lee Barker's set pieces on and off the stage dragging the already exasperating 90 minute show down even further. Surely tables and chairs used for one scene could have somehow been incorporated into another to save the cast from constantly lifting and moving.
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If the cast was forced to work hard moving props, it's also fair to say they worked hard at delivering good character work in places. Ornelas' Red gets the most affection from us as the one character we're drawn to and can believe in. Her performance is liquid ease that manages to distract from the show's plentiful shortcomings. Duga nicely gives us a Crick that is both a man child and a bully and Ehrhardt's Mary is an interesting basket of flakey pouts and ticks. However, talented or not, this cast simply cannot plumb the depths of characters that Ruhl has rendered developmentally impotent or just plain implausible.
Late: A Cowboy Song is far more successful at evoking moments and feelings than it is at making a point or giving us an intriguing narrative. Overstuffed with questions of gender and sexual politics set against an unsatisfying, surreal examination of marriage and squashed against a fanciful romance, the show tries to be too many things and ends up being not much of anything. Well, not much of anything on stage. But should you chose to look at Ruhl's early work as a nod to her developing ideas and pay attention to the scenes that work, you can see the talented sparks that ignite more holistically in her following efforts. Maybe when it comes to Late: A Cowboy Song, the value is a pain now (with minor bouts of pleasure) for a capital P pleasure later kind of proposition. Your enjoyment in the show will depend on how much you are willing to pay it forward.
Late: A Cowboy Song continues through November 22 at 14 PEWS, 800 Aurora Street. Secure tickets online at mildredsumbrella.com or at the door. All performances are pay what you can with proceeds going to support AssistHers.