There's a good deal of careful character work in Vince McKewin's new play at the Victory Theatre in Burbank, but "The Carney Rod and Gun Club" ends up being another rowdy set of good ol' boys in search of a plot.
The "meeting" being called to some sort of order here is run by president Walter Thompson (Jonathan Banks), flanked by the members of his governing board: Jack Lipinski (Gary Hollis), Deacon Cronin (David Myers), who has a prayer for every occasion (and several non-occasions), Milton Cunningham (John M. Jackson) and sergeant-at-arms Alvin Barto (John Bluto), for whom the word arms constitutes an active verb.
The get-together is a regular event and the first item of business on this day is the introduction of new member John Lankford (Peter Sprague), a nerdy, uptight second-generation inductee, in for an unexpected dressing down.
Second item is a talk by guest speaker and munitions-maker Al Huck (Art La Fleur), who has a wandering eye for the ladies (one in particular) and a gun riding his hip. Third and central to the evening is a much-anticipated vote on whether to continue sponsorship of the Little League team with the most unbroken record of losses this side of the Mississippi. On such hefty decision-making rests the fate of the world.
McKewin would like to suggest that it is not just the fate of \o7 this \f7 world that pivots on such a mundane axis, but, in a much bigger sense, the fate of the world at large.
As it is, the playwright, aided by a uniformly able company, has had more fun broadly delineating a variety of small-town stereotypes (including handicapped coach Berrish, a role snappily argued from the seat of his wheelchair by Ken Lynch) than developing a cogent metaphor in which to place them.
He also has been faithful to the unities, so that not only are we attending this embattled meeting in Carney, Md., in the here-and-now, but we are in effect its participating members. It is \o7 we \f7 who are being lectured and otherwise verbally assaulted, \o7 we \f7 who are defied by sergeant-at-arms Barto--at gunpoint if necessary--to leave the heavily trophied room (designed by D. Martyn Bookwalter with his usual telling attention to detail).
Is that the definitive meaning of a captive audience?
Geographically, Carney's not far from Baltimore. Mentally, it lies somewhere in the middle of Texas. This unruly assembly reminds us of no one as much as that other collection of bumptious and rambunctious good ol' boys known as the Knights of the White Magnolia, who people Preston Jones' "Texas Trilogy" like so many longhorns in a china shop full of egos.
The members of this rod-and-gun club are spiritual brothers to their Texan counterparts, and McKewin has been no more successful than was Jones at achieving something more vividly probing than an intentionally exaggerated portrait from life. His message when all is said and done? Something faintly derogatory about what happens when parochial minds set about running the world--even if it's only their world--and all the obvious reverberations that entails.
We see boys playing at being men, and one woman--Lorraine Sweeney (Teryn Jenkins), the attractive widow of Big Jim, killed in a hunting accident--playing Mama, trying to clean up the guys' language, nibbling at the advances of Al Huck and holding these guys in a thrall of awe and anger.
So what else is new?
Production values are good, including costumes by Meg Gilbert and lighting by York Kennedy. Director Norman Cohen has extracted fine performances from his cast, everyone is having a high ol' time, but neither he nor they can rise above the limits of the text.
"Carney" runs Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m., until Sept. 8; (213) 466-1767 or (818) 843-9253.