Good plays stand the test of time: that’s why we get a Glass Menagerie and a Death of a Salesman every five years. The mediocre ones tend to get forgotten by history, but there’s always going to be one fan who cares passionately enough to try keep them alive. That’s actor Matt de Rogatis, who’s now on his third tour of duty in James McLure’s 1978 one-act dramedy Lone Star.
You can tell from his performance that he just loves what McLure’s words offer him, but how much affection will be felt for them across the footlights I’m not so sure. I found Lone Star to be a deeply unserious play, and Joe Rosario’s new production of it (for his and de Rogatis’s company Ruth Stage) at Theater Row is too lugubrious and padded to hold our attention.
Lone Star follows one night in the life of Roy (de Rogatis), a Texas good ol’ boy who returned from Vietnam two years earlier and is still feeling the effects of his psychological scars. Roy spends his nights getting drunk in the backyard of the local bar with his soft brother, Ray (Dan Amboyer), reliving his glory days instead of facing his current demons, and verbally sparring with local appliance salesman Cletis (Ryan McCartan, strangely effete). The only things that give Roy joy are his beer of choice (Lone Star, of course), his wife Elizabeth (Ana Isabelle), and his 1959 Pink Thunderbird, which he does not yet know that Cletis destroyed in a fiery car wreck of jealousy.
Time hasn’t been kind to Lone Star, which depicts toxic hypermasculinity, unbridled bigotry, and veiled homophobia with a sort of commonplace shrug. Maybe it was more reflective of the world when it briefly ran on Broadway in 1979, but today it’s just a relic, hopelessly passé and just plain silly.
For this production, Ruth Stage (presumably de Rogatis himself) has created a new version of the hourlong Lone Star, which incorporates dialogue and plot elements from McLure’s companion play, Laundry and Bourbon. This gives us Elizabeth’s perspective on her relationship with Roy, presented at the top of the show as a 20-minute monologue interspersed with snatches of the Linda Ronstadt hit “Long, Long Time.” Does this add much to Lone Star itself? Feminine energy from Isabelle (whose performance is sweet, if nondescript), and a bit of poignancy, perhaps, but mostly just length. Thematically, The Last of Us used Ronstadt’s ballad of romantic longing with much more skill.
This frying-pan-to-the-head approach to emotional resonance is ever-present in Rosario’s production, which finds an early scenic transition to be the perfect time to explain what feels like the whole of the Vietnam War to the audience in the form of cartoon graphics laid over authentic newsreel footage (Tomás Correa did the projections and Legacy Comix did the illustrations). Maybe this was an interesting idea on paper, but in practice, it’s overblown and tacky. Considering that Matthew Imhoff’s practical and realistic set doesn’t change, it goes on forever, well past the point where I’m willing to be forgiving about my time being wasted.
It also blunts the impact of the two generally good central performances from de Rogatis and Amboyer. You can’t fake chemistry, and these two guys have it, which not only makes their onstage brotherhood believable, but raises the stakes of the whole back half of the script, when Ray confesses sins that could wreck Roy’s life even further. Amboyer brings humor and innocence to Ray’s dimness — we can really feel his guilt and worry in the way he carries himself. De Rogatis could afford to pitch himself down a bit; he’s playing a grand operatic tragedy to a third balcony that doesn’t exist in this 88-seat house. But with the sweat glistening on his brow and his tattooed biceps, he’s giving it his all and then some, and doing it with full-bodied dedication. It’s impossible not to recognize how deeply this particular role lives inside him, for some reason.
Why? I couldn’t tell you. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and that’s Lone Star in a nutshell.