Revisiting a Personal Apocalypse Behind a Texas Bar in Lone Star
Matt de Rogatis stars in a revival of James McLure's 1979 one-act comedy at 13th Street Repertory Theater.
The mere idea of reviving a play like James McLure's deeply male-oriented 1979 one-act comedy Lone Star might seem passé in our feminist-minded current moment. Is there anything new a work about codes of masculinity such as this has to offer us in 2019? And yet, by virtue of simply treating it as a period piece, Joe John Battista's new production of Lone Star, running at 13th Street Repertory Theater through June 16, does hold a certain sociological and historical fascination. And when the text itself is performed as sensitively as it is here, especially by lead actor Matt de Rogatis, it's enough to temporarily pulverize any reservations one might have about the play's dated qualities.
Set behind Angel's Bar in Maynard, Texas, in 1972, there are three characters in Lone Star: Roy (de Rogatis), a Vietnam War veteran still suffering from PTSD two years after returning from the front lines; his worshipful brother, Ray (Chris Loupos); and the scrawny Cletis (Michael Villastrigo), a friend of Ray's whom the hypermasculine Roy strongly dislikes. The only major points of drama in McLure's play are Cletis's offstage destruction of Roy's 1959 pink Thunderbird convertible and Ray's revelation of a long-held secret involving Roy's wife. But for Roy, these developments have the effect of plunging him into existential despair, since his car and his marriage were the only things keeping him psychologically afloat in his postwar fog.
The surface of Lone Star remains light throughout, the stakes made to feel low as we do little more than witness these three men hang out, pump each other up, and verbally and physically spar. But darker depths emerge subtly, gradually. There's a kind of offhand poetry in McLure's implicit equation of the destruction of a classic car to lost American innocence, and of a tainted marriage to punctured masculinity. Lone Star may feel slight in the moment, but only in retrospect does the inner pathos of the material become apparent.
That sense of melancholy can also be felt in the performance of de Rogatis, playing Roy for the third time in his career (most recently in a production at the Triad in 2017, also costarring Loupos). De Rogatis's voice, in particular, has an uncanny ability to suggest vulnerability even at Roy's most ferociously macho (a quality he recently put to enthralling use as Richard III in Austin Pendleton's Shakespearean mash-up Wars of the Roses: Henry IV & Richard III). Underneath his heavily tattooed arm and his denim-heavy blue-collar attire (appropriate costuming by Wendy Tonken), de Rogatis projects an underlying innocence to Roy that becomes unexpectedly poignant at its climax. He doesn't condescend to this classic Southern good ol' boy, and neither do his costars, Loupos as his dim-bulb brother and Villastrigo as a man whose wiry exterior masks a well of weak-willed resentment.
Director Battista has surrounded this fine trio of actors with a no-frills production that puts the focus solely on the performers. Perhaps it could have used some more frills; only Kerielle Sollecito's set design, mostly consisting of a gray, graffiti-sprayed brick wall, seems to have made much of an effort to evoke a vivid sense of time and place. Still, the performances are strong enough for both the down-home comedy and the underlying tragedy of Lone Star to sufficiently come through. And Battista's hands-off approach means that one can approach McLure's play as a reasonably compelling relic of its time: a glimpse into a way of life and a system of values that many New Yorkers will find utterly foreign to their own.
NOTE: Inspired by a concept explored by director Pete McElligott in the 2017 off-Broadway production of Lone Star that de Rogatis and Loupos also starred in, the play in this current production is preceded by an hour-long concert ostensibly set inside the bar in which the play itself takes place. At the performance I attended, the Chalks — a comedic country group featuring Leenya Rideout, Mary Brienza, and Kathryn Markey as a sisterly trio singing songs that skillfully toe the line between satirizing Americana music and affectionately embodying it — provided the often hilarious preshow entertainment (including some audience-participation gambits). The second week of the show's limited engagement will feature Rideout by herself. If the sheer virtuosity she exhibited in her recent Irish Repertory Theatre solo show Wild Abandon is any indication, she will offer a dazzling curtain-raiser.