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St. Louis by Richard Green

Hands on a Hardbody
New Line Theatre


Taylor Pietz and (rear) Anna Skidis and Todd Schaefer
It's a pretty sure bet that in the next five years or so, we'll all have some gizmo called Google Maps of the Soul. And with that app, whenever you're heading for abstract locations like the intersection of Hope and Despair, you can know about it well before you ever hit the off-ramp. The same advance notice would apply to the cerebral cross-streets of Laughter and Tears, and Faith and Skepticism, as well.

But till then, you can just bookmark all those cataclysmic mental latitudes (with a lot of delicious jokes and songs, too) by making one stop at the regional premiere of Hands on a Hardbody, under the surprisingly lithe and dynamic direction of New Line Theatre's artistic chief Scott Miller.

Before the opening, Mr. Miller said that the concept of directing a cast—even one as talented as this one is—to keep at least one hand (in a Mickey Mouse glove) planted on a new pick-up truck for two-and-a-half hours does resemble Alfred Hitchcock's problem in making the famous 1944 movie Lifeboat: where the camera never seems to leave the survivors of a German U-Boat attack, cast adrift in World War II. We're trapped on board with them, through some surprisingly rough seas. And, surprisingly, in that film, and in Hands on a Hardbody, the fiat (of being trapped, clinging to some mythic mode of transportation) still works very well indeed.

Except, of course, here that fiat is actually a Nissan: just one aspect of the strange shift in identity, in all-American Longview, Texas. In one of Amanda Green and Trey Anastasio's most telling songs, late in the show, a circle of down-on-their-luck Texans reflect on the disturbing change in our nation, where every town from Butte, Montana, to Hollywood, Florida, looks pretty much the same (except for the climate). Each town now has a Walmart, a Walgreen's, and a Wendy's no matter where you go. Much of the "local economy" is only a sad memory, along with much of the domestic car industry itself.

But there are plenty of other great songs that aren't a meditation on being led down a blind alley by Washington and Wall Street. And at least two of the cast members are so seldom seen on stage (despite their outstanding abilities) that they add a whole new dimension just by being there.

Todd Schaefer and Cindy Duggan are the two I've missed the most in recent years. Mr. Schaefer, an actor who was so funny as Batboy, and who reeled-off genius by the yard in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, is a dour Texan this time. But he still manages to find a thousand tiny ways of orchestrating his performance with minimalistic touches, from under the brim of a cowboy hat. And Ms. Duggan, whose Irish spirit and extensive stage experience are both well-known around town, is great as the oppositional housewife, flaring at the joshing jibes of her husband (the excellent, but often under-appreciated, Keith Thompson).

Jeffrey M. Wright sheds his good-guy image and comes up darker and more tragic than he was, even in Next to Normal last year: here as Benny, the past contest winner with a surprising assortment of skeletons in his closet. And Anna Skidis is delightful as the Tex-Mex girl with commonplace dreams, which she could pursue in a new pick-up truck.

Unlike other "redneck comedies," this show also portrays her personal belief system (and those of the others gathered around the truck) with respect, and in a way that's fully dimensional. Director Miller has said (in another context) that he didn't want to treat Hands on a Hardbody as a gimmicky show, but rather as a serious play, and—in spite of all the comedy, and the great music—it very much succeeds as a serious play, too.

Marshall Jennings is a contestant with a stash of Snickers bars and a flair for the blues, and Taylor Pietz a saloon hall beauty who's not afraid to work the angles. Though frequently foreboding in recent stage appearances, Ryan Foizey is surprisingly light on his feet here, as an out-of-work young man, while Luke Steingruby (who played Angel in the recent New Line production of Rent) strikes an unexpectedly ominous note as a newly discharged Marine.

Rey Arceno (as Jesus Pena) delivers a blistering solo, tired of the knee-jerk scorn Caucasians he meets; Margeau Baue Steinau achieves a grand transformation as a tough, big-haired Texas gal; and Mike Dowdy is the sales manager at the Nissan dealership, who provides even more drama, on top of that already supplied by the show's desperate—but delightfully plucky—contestants, trying to recapture their Texas identity with a new truck, albeit one made across a very wide ocean.

And at precisely that moment, you realize you have reached your psychological destination: a crossroads of where we were, and where thought we had been going.

Through June 21, 2014, at the South Campus building of Washington University (the old CBC prep school), 6501 Clayton Rd., St. Louis MO, 63117. For more information, www.newlinetheatre.com.

The Players
Jesus Pena: Rey Arceno
Mike Ferris: Mike Dowdy
Janis Curtis: Cindy Duggan
Frank Nugent: Zachary Allen Farmer
Greg Wilhote: Ryan Foizey
Virginia Drew: Alison Helmer
Ronald McCowan: Marshall Jennings
Heather Stovall: Todd Schaefer
Norma Valverde: Anna Skidis
Cindy Barnes: Margeau Baue Steinau
Chris Alvaro: Luke Steingruby
Don Curtis: Keith Thompson
Kelli Mangrum: Marcy Wiegert
Benny Perkins: Jeffrey M. Wright

The New Line Band
Piano Conductor: Sue Goldford
Guitar: D. Mike Bauer
Cello: Emily Ebrecht
Violin: Nikki Glenn
Bass: Andrew Gurney
Second Keyboard: Joel Hackbarth
Percussion: Clancy Newell

The Artistic Staff
Director: Scott Miller
Assistant Director: Mike Dowdy
Stage Manager: Gabe Taylor
Scenic Designer: Rob Lippert
The Truck: Rob Lippert, Patrick Domnigan, Melanie Korak, Shelley Francis, Kathleen Dwyer
Sound Designer: Kerrie Mondy
Costume Designers: Sarah Porter, Marcy Wiegert
Lighting Designer: Kenneth Zinkl
Props Master: Kimi Short
Lighting Technician: Gabe Taylor
Box Office Manager: Kim Avants
Volunteer Coordinator: Alison Helmer
Graphic Designer: Matt Reedy

Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg


-- Richard T. Green

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