State Theatre,
through February 8
Running Time: 2 hrs, 10 min

George Burns and Gracie Allen. Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Groucho and Chico Marx. The first half of this century was blessed with comedians who could take a common conversation and transform it into a verbal tug-of-war that elicited howls of laughter from anyone within earshot. Their styles may have varied, but these comedic duos and their ilk all worked all off the same premise — a bit of casual information tossed off by one speaker that's either disbelieved or misunderstood by the other — from which they gradually, deliberately, in carefully timed and masterfully modulated exchanges of escalating exasperation, built a friendly chat into a hysterical volley of vexation and pique.

You don't see many of those merry conversational tussels nowadays. They've largely faded in this era of solo stand-up and group sketch comedy. But playwright Herb Gardner has done his bit to keep them alive, and fans of vintage comedy would do well to check out Live Oak Theatre's new production of his 1982 comedy. As two crusty old seniors who swap stories on a Big Apple park bench, Tom Parker and Billy Harden banter with the crisp give-and-take and precise timing of vaudeville vets. Parker's character, Nat Moyer, is the catalyst for the comedy, spinning fantastic yarns — one minute he's a geriatric James Bond, the next an antique Alan Dershowitz — for the benefit of Harden's invariably gullible Midge Carter. Parker unspools Nat's whoppers like a master angler, nonchalantly dragging his line until his quarry takes the bait, then letting the line run awhile before he easily reels him in. Harden makes his Midge all squinty skepticism, head cocked and body stiff while listening to these tall tales, occasionally exploding in disbelief, jabbing a finger in Parker's chest and ragging the man over the improbability of his story. To which Parker responds with cool accord, assenting to the preposterousness of the tale, then building on it, ratcheting the conversation up one more hilarious notch. The two actors are in perfect sync, their verbal jabs always clipped and quick, each leaving just enough room for the other, the two heightening the intensity together. What a pleasure to listen to and watch their skillfully drawn squabbles!

Alas, Gardner has more on his mind than artful bickering. He aims to show where these two old men fit in the larger world, putting them at odds with an array of younger types: the yuppie tenant who wants Midge fired from his job as a super and the young thug who's fleecing him for protection money, Moyer's daughter who wants her dad to settle down, a violent pusher the older men run afoul of. The playwright makes some pointed observations about usefulness and imagination continuing to thrive even as one's body grows frail, and he generates some meaningful tension between Nat and his daughter — realized with a touching blend of droll impatience and frustrated affection by Janelle Buchanan — but Gardner's other attempts at drama amount to little more than melodrama, and, save for one good gasp they elicit, director Don Toner and his able cast are unable to do much with them.

Ultimately, though, these are distractions. What Gardner always returns to is Nat and Midge, which here means Parker and Harden. Toner was smart to bring these men together again in this vehicle, and he has helped them craft a keen and rollicking wrangle that recalls the classic comic quarrels of yesteryear.

— Robert Faires


Eeka Beeka,
through January 31

Let me warn you: This is not the art show to temper your post-holiday blues. Chris Plecs' paintings are not feel-good pastels or heartening portraits. If anything, the subjects are somber and often morose — the workings of a mind that seems to take life pretty heavily.

Yet through Plecs' dark commentaries on AIDS, enslaved Tibetans, and other topics of our time, there's something intriguing for the viewer. It's like hearing a random statistic on society's failing state; it's at once depressing and interesting. Such is the effect of these works, a strangely fascinating melancholy.

Plecs' style is as unique as his substitutions for canvas, which include handmade paper, toilet seat covers, aluminum, and wooden skateboards. He sometimes uses muted earth tones, more often garish reds and blues, and his paintings almost always convey a distinct feeling of anxiety or displeasure. A room of his work is a frenetic, colorful melange of concepts and ideas — like a funhouse for the intellect.

Plecs often paints visages of people with varying degrees of notoriety, like Princess Diana in White Trash and Timothy McVeigh in Tim. He places comments and statements randomly over and around the central image, as in "Paranoya Self Destroya" beneath Elvis' profile in El Vez, and "History Will Absolve Me" over Fidel Castro's face in Castrol Syntex. Whether or not these commentaries come directly from Plecs' personal opinions or his vision of society's notions on the subject... well, that's for the viewer to decide.

One work that is slightly more sublime than others is Smoking Goat, which depicts a bright crimson goat with a relaxed smile, a cigarette poised in its lips. Dotted lines cut paths across the goat, like a graph that shows which parts of an animal make the best meat. Strung from the goat's ear to its neck is a chain, from which dangles a tag reading "G." Japanese characters float in the crimson background around the animal, as well as on its snout. A word is written vertically on its body — read backward it says "noble." It's not easy to discern Plecs' message, though the cigarette and dotted lines allude to an almost certain end to the seemingly content animal.

Plecs' exploration of harsh yet poignant issues finds a perfect backdrop in Eeka Beeka's tar-black walls. It's perfect timing for the show, too, since this is the gallery's final exhibit in its current space. Beginning in February, its new home will be on the second floor of ArtPlex, which also houses several artists' studios and the ACA Gallery. — Cari Marshall


McCallum Fine Arts Academy Theatre,
through January 25

It's been 18 years since Judith Guest's story of suicide and psychiatry was made into a film. Ordinary People marked screen legend Robert Redford's directorial debut — and an auspicious one it was; the film went on to nab the Academy Award for Best Picture from Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull. But for a new generation as unlikely to know Donald Sutherland as they are to recognize Kiefer, this poignant tale of a family's bitter dissolution might as well be brand new.

Conrad Jarrett (Michael Silverstone) is a normal teen. Or rather, he was until last year, when Buck, his older brother, died in a tragic boating accident, leaving Conrad and his parents struggling to reroot the family tree. His grieving parents offer little comfort to the confused adolescent, marooned on his own island of blame and self-hatred. For his emotionally befuddled father (Tim Blackwood) and his aloof, tightly coiled mother (Rebecca Ann Robinson), just keeping up appearances at cocktail parties is hard enough. Desperate for escape, Conrad attempts suicide, and after a subsequent bout at a mental hospital, he returns home to find everything the same way he left it. His family has a beautiful home, country club privileges, tickets to Europe — and their life is a quiet hell. At his father's urging, the uptight Conrad begins to see Dr. Berger (Kregg Foote), a sharp psychiatrist whose counsel and steady faith finally ease Conrad's clenched fists open. These scenes serve as the play's dramatic crux, and the relationship between patient and doctor the most riveting part of the play. Here we confront with Conrad the ugly truths of his battle for happiness. As Conrad rebuilds his own life, he must continually revisit the acute pain of his past, cope with a sorely grieving mother, and perhaps even accept a future without her.

Nancy Gilsenan's theatrical adaptation strains to convey the poignancy of Guest's book. To give us a window into Conrad's conflicted fears, Gilsenan creates fantasy scenes in which characters echo the protagonist's nagging, self-defeating thoughts. Late brother Buck — in a literal representation of his looming presence — stands solemnly onstage throughout most of the play. These tricks work to shed light on Conrad's internal struggles but fail to capture the honest yearning of Guest's simple yet eloquent prose. Without the written narrative to accompany them, or the subtlety of camera work to convey them, many of our young protagonist's yearnings seem overly sentimental and clichéd.

This is not the fault of the actors. The entire cast of this Austin Theatre for Youth production, many of whom are students from McCallum Fine Arts Academy, perform admirably. And as the baffled and misguided Conrad Jarrett, Silverstone gives a genuine, moving performance that displays range and power. Rather, what may ail the script is simply old age. Many of the play's messages — let go of your anger, talk about things, blame doesn't help anyone — are the kind of rhetoric the self-help decade used not only to tap into our consciousness but to bludgeon it to death. In the Nineties, talk about divorce, suicide, self-loathing, and parental conflict just seems so... obvious. It is a testament to the actors and director Rod Caspers, then, that the play works in spite of its rusty resonance. Also because despite stale surface issues, its deeper crises are the far more profound: identity, mercy, and acceptance. Ordinary People still strikes a familiar chord (or rather, discord) in its honest portrayal of a family ripped apart by tragedy and the small, shaky steps they are taking to bridge the distance. — Sarah Hepola

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