Houston playwright Carl Williams has turned his attention to Cowboy poetry, and the result is the comedy Under a Cowboy Moon set in Spitwhistle, Texas, on the occasion of its annual poetry contest.
Ten characters grace the stage, some entering late, though one is so despicable that grace is a misnomer. The Saddle Horn Bar is run by PA Carswell (Megan Nix), who dreams of working in a diner in Texarkana, and for whom Deuce Whatley (David James Barron) still carries a torch for their former intimate relationship. Part of the suspense is whether the spark of his lust will re-ignite the flame of mutual passion. If not, at least Deuce has his Budweisers.
Henry Burke (Taylor Wildman), a young neophyte poet at it for only a few weeks, is in the bar and struggling to compose his entry, when Rafe Cainfield (Christopher G. Keller) enters, accompanied by his girlfriend Teri Blair (Helen Hurn). Rafe has the swagger of over-confidence, and Teri has the looks of a screen goddess, so another quiver of suspense is how long will she put up with Rafe's boorish behavior. Rafe is written to be such a mess of a human that he might better be played with some easy-going charm, but Keller stresses and underlines the shallowness and vanity, like hitting a thumbtack with a sledgehammer.
Things pick up when a PBS TV crew enters, to film the upcoming contest, one of several stops for a documentary on cowboy poetry. Rebecca Proctor (Amanda Garcia) is in charge while Simon Dawes (Bob Galley) handles the camera work. Jill Milligan (Rebeca Stevens), a former waitress at the Saddle Horn, back from college for a visit, arrives, as do two other contestants, an out-of-towner Michael Tibbets (Jeff Henninger) and three-time contest winner Boon Hawkins (Adrian Collinson) .
There is a bit of a young lion/old lion theme, as Rafe seeks to take down Boon in the competition. There is a bit of nostalgia for The Old West, somewhat romanticized, and a sepia-pastoral acceptance of change. There is some low-key humor with the badinage of barroom patrons, but it's fair to say that the stakes never seem high. This is deliberate on playwright Williams's part, as he has intended to write a low-key comedy, and has succeeded. Even the "fight" scene is just a pushing contest.
The poetry itself is eminently forgettable, still at the rhyming stage, but one of the contestants acts as poetic critic for PBS, and his comments on the poetry are adroit, significant and amusingly creative, indicating that Williams can write with sophistication when he wants.
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The set is spare but authentic, and is by Elvin Moriarty, who directed and marshaled his ten actors into performances which varied considerably in professional polish. Barron created an interesting dynamic as the love-lorn but philosophical Deuce, and Collinson as old lion Boon brought dignity and wisdom to the part. Garcia as the PBS producer was authoritative and amiable, and the beautiful Hurn as Rafe's girlfriend showed her acting talents in reacting well to the various goings-on. Keller as Rafe seems to have made the wrong acting choices here, though he has been excellent in other roles, and director Moriarty and he might care to re-think whether an interpretation less heavy-handed might not work better.
A low-key, gentle comedy explores cowboy poetry without aiming too high, and provides the quiet entertainment it intended.
Under a Cowboy Moon continues through February 1, at Theatre Suburbia, 4106 Way Out West Drive. For information or ticketing, call 713-682-3525 or contact www.theatresuburbia.org.