Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Pathetic Life and Remarkable Afterlife of Elmer McCurdy,
the Worst Robber in the West

Nimbus Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Autonomy, Dirty Business, The Play That Goes Wrong, Tinker to Evers to Chance, The Gun Show, and La Traviata


Sam Landman
Photo by Emmet Kowler
I sat through both acts of The Pathetic Life and Remarkable Afterlife of Elmer McCurdy, the Worst Robber in the West enjoying myself and musing over what kind of warped mind playwright Josh Cragun must have to come up with this stuff. As I was exiting, Cragun himself was in the lobby, so I took the opportunity to chat with him—and only then learned that the story I had just seen was true, mostly. That Elmer McCurdy sure enough had one pathetic life, and the most remarkable of afterlives. Nimbus Theatre is staging the world premiere of this lark of a play at their home-base Crane Theater.

Told with a broad wink, with the feeling of a tall tale stretched to its full height, the play begins in Johnson's funeral parlor where Elmer had been embalmed after being killed by government agents in a hail of gunfire. As he had no next of kin to claim the body—and pay undertaker Johnson—he was being kept by Johnson until the bill was paid. As time passed and the odds of payment grow dim, Johnson begins to charge curiosity seekers to take a look at the perfectly preserved body of an honest to goodness wild west bank robber. From this juncture, the story moves back and forth in time, back to relay the saga of Elmer's misbegotten career as a safecracker and forward to relay the continuing journey of his corpse, which enjoyed more success than he ever had in life.

Those scenes are enlivened by the two other McCurdy gang members, Grits Crabcake and Li'l Britches. Here the truth is embellished by Cragun's fertile mind. Records attest to the Elmer acting with two accomplices, but without noting anything about them. In fact, due to his incompetence, Elmer had to recruit new partners for each attempted hold-up. At any rate, could any partners possibly be as gullible, slipshod and inept as Grits and Britches? Not to mention that Li'l Britches is a lady—as she repeatedly blurts out to those who, seeing a bank robber dressed like a man, assume said robber is of the male gender. Though Britches is incensed each time a stranger makes this mistake, nothing about her demeanor is the least bit ladylike.

Elmer McCurdy's saga is played out for laughs, with plentiful word play, a dash of slapstick, a barrage of malapropisms, and situations so ludicrous that they seem to be directly linked to wherever it is in our bodies that laughs emanate. From Elmer's first encounter with Grits and Britches to their series of badly mangled attempts at strike-it-rich robberies, to his last stand following a ludicrously botched train robbery, we shake our head in disbelief through the laughter. Moving forward, Elmer's well-embalmed corpse (the trick is plenty of arsenic) eventually becomes the prize exhibit in a travelling exhibit of curiosities, continuing to change hands until winding up as a film prop. Elmer's film "career" is puffed up considerably in Cragun's story, but after so much that defies credibility, what harm is there in stretching the fun as far as it will go?

At intervals, the story is interrupted by faux commercials played by cast members. These are done for laughs, hawking ironically named products with greatly exaggerated powers, but the laughs are not very hearty and the material is pretty lame. Perhaps these bits are meant to frame the play as an old-style western TV show, which it does not otherwise resemble, given the frequent narrative shift between Elmer the bank robber and Elmer the corpse. Or Cragun may have felt the play was too slight and needed to be padded with some extra material. Whether that is the intent or not, that is how it felt while watching the play, and to this viewer they diminished rather than enhanced my otherwise genuine enjoyment of play.

Cragun's script, though not above some real groan-producing puns and double entendres, is for the most part witty and engaging. He has given each of the main characters their own voice and persona, which allows for humor based on their quirky personality traits and their attempts to get along together. Director Liz Neerland seems to have gone for an atmosphere of controlled bedlam, with lunacy starting out from the true facts, embellished by the playwright, and given wide berth by the actors, but never allowed to get to the point where being zany overshadows telling a darn good yarn. She also incorporates some terrific stage business, like the way we see our would-be robbers making their way to the lead car of a moving train.

Aside from the material itself, the best reason to see Elmer McCurdy is to catch Sam Landman's hilarious performance as Elmer, both as living, breathing man and as corpse. Landman's droll delivery, constant equanimity in the face of utter disaster, and attempts to be the voice of reason, a clown prince among a den of fools, are a rare treat. As Elmer the corpse he has nothing funny to say, but manages to use his body in ways that crack up the audience.

Derek Dirlam as Grits Crabcake is a stitch, good-looking, earnest, and dumb as nails, perhaps an ancestor of the Jethro Bodine character on the "Beverly Hillbillies" television show. As Li'l Britches, Boo Segersin is just as much fun, being the only one of the three crooks who actually has some reasoning skills, but is forced to play second-fiddle to Elmer due to circumstances that are another of the play's running gags. Segersin puts on a terrific show of being feisty and cranky, though never as dangerous as Britches wants the world to think—which, alas, is the entire gang's fatal flaw.

Three other actors form an ensemble playing a wide range of other roles. Song Kim, Laura Mason and Lily Noonan gamely go from one part to another, changing voices and attitudes to populate the story with a host of stock characters. They are greatly abetted here by the clever costumes from Andrea M. Gross and Barb Portinga, working under the name Rubble&Ash, designed to allow simple flourishes to suggest an entire character.

Ursula K. Bowden has provided a simple, functional set with moving pieces that morph nicely from funeral parlor to bank to saloon to movie set to the many other called for locales. Jacob M. Davis does fine work with the sound design, giving the nitroglycerin explosions their proper bang (along with Mitchell Frasier's work on lighting) and providing a very witty range of music before the acts and as underscoring, that trigger a host of memories attached to legends of the West and the entertainments that commercialized those legends in our lifetimes.

Elmer McCurdy is not a particularly deep or insightful play, and breaks no new ground in the art of the theater. It does unspool a fascinating story with ribald humor and genuine warmth, providing a good time, and anchored by Sam Landman's sterling performance, making it well worth a look.

The Pathetic Life and Remarkable Afterlife of Elmer McCurdy, the Worst Robber in the West, through May 19, 2019, at Nimbus Theatre's Crane Theater, 2303 Kennedy Street N.E., Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $12.00 - $15.00. For more information and tickets call 612-548-1379 or visit nimbustheatre.com.

Writer: Josh Cragun; Director: Liz Neerland; Set Design: Ursula K. Bowden; Costume Design: Rubble & Ash; Lighting Design: Mitchell Frasier; Sound Design: Jacob M. Davis; Prop Design: Sarah Salisbury; Dramaturg: Alex Meyer; Stage Manager: Alyssa Thompson; Production Manager: Monique Lindquist

Cast: Derek Dirlam (Grits Crabcake), Song Kim (ensemble), Sam Landman (Elmer McCurdy), Laura Mason (ensemble), Lily Noonan (ensemble), Boo Segersin (Li'l Britches).


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