LA JOLLA — "Gillette," which opened Sunday night at the La Jolla Playhouse's Warren Theater, is a country & Western comedy about two low-rollers from Texas hoping for better luck in the energy fields of Wyoming. Enjoying their story is no problem. (There's even a rockabilly concert after the show.) Swallowing it-- that's the trick.
Maybe we shouldn't complain. Playwright William Hauptman does, mainly, stick to the truth about what it feels like to be these guys. He also has a great ear for what passes for conversation in Gillette, Wyo. But he does tend to stretch a point here and there, in the interest of a better story.
Take the steak scene. Our two dudes (Jim Haynie, Campbell Scott) invite a couple of free-lance hookers (Susan Berman, Sierra Pecheur) to their home for steaks--their home being a few scraps of Salvation Army furniture out on the flats beyond Gillette.
This gives us the priceless image of two out-of-work cowboys and two punched-out playgirls solemnly rolling a joint and discussing "what's wrong with America" as the sun slowly sinks in the West.
There's some entertaining hanky-panky under the stars, too. But then it starts to rain. A great opportunity for further snuggling, one would think. Except that these idiots haven't thought to put a roof on their spread: not even a sheet of plywood against the noonday sun. (Anybody driven through Wyoming in August?)
So everybody scatters, leading to a comical truck-cow crash, which we only get to hear about, since this isn't a movie. At such moments, and I have only detailed one, "Gillette" is just too over-the-top to be believed.
Still, there's a play under there someplace. Hauptman may not know much about the weather in Wyoming but he does know the mental climate, which has not changed much from the days of the Old West. Men are still supposed to be men, and women are still supposed to tag along after them, supplying goods and services.
That is the ideal. The reality--and "Gillette" is equally shrewd about this--is that women aren't buying it anymore. Hauptman has some fun with the idea that this 1980s version of Dodge City has a woman's "self-help center," but he actually endorses it. Certainly the guys in his play are beyond self-help, having hogtied themselves into macho corners years ago. If the gals can't save Gillette--i.e., the world--it is done for.
The play tells how the older of our two dudes, played by Haynie, teaches his nephew, played by Scott, the secret of manly survival: acing your best friend. It's a cynical ending, but an apt one, and there is always the chance that the nephew, when he gets up off the floor, won't take the moral. But don't bet on it. Another convert to the cause of dog-eat-dog.
Hauptman the moralist thinks this is terrible, but Hauptman the playwright thinks it's hilarious and much of the time we agree with him. He has written some very funny man-to-man face-downs here, with each participant doing his best imitation of John Wayne and hoping it will pass muster. Dean Abston as a mad biker, for instance, implies that he would be down to the self-help center in a shot if it didn't involve a loss of face. He already has a pretty good line of psychobabble.
Some of the men, however, don't have to imitate John Wayne. By now they're already John Wayne, or worse. For instance, there's an oil boss named Booger (Michael Genovese) who chews up kids like the nephew as if they were tobacco plugs. Ptui! His sidekick, Poot (Douglas Roberts), is even tougher. Poot knocks down a cafe with a bulldozer--again, off stage--because they didn't give him enough change. But Hauptman's most convincing scenes are the man-woman ones, as when Scott tries, shyly, to make time with a scared girl who has gotten into his motel room (Barbara Howard): a scam, of course. Or when Haynie, who knows a lot about women, sweet-talks his hooker date, Pecheur, out of her professional frost and gets access to the vulnerable lady underneath. This starts as a scam but ends as a real love scene with appreciation on both sides--the nicest scene in the play.
"Gillette" reaches too far to be funny and takes too long (three hours) to get where it's going. But it does capture the weirdness of towns like Gillette and Rock Springs, something one senses even passing through as a tourist. This isn't white-picket-fence America, though it may do a good imitation during the day.
Des McAnuff directed "Gillette" (as he did Hauptman's "Big River") and he stages the hell out of it, with enormous help from his set designer, John Arnone, from a rowdy band of actors and from a terrific rockabilly band, the Cadillac Cowboys. They all make it work like a movie and there is the disloyal suspicion that, at heart, it is one. "Gillette" shows you a good time, though. But will it be there in the morning?
'GILLETTE' William Hauptman's comedy, at the La Jolla Playhouse's Warren Theater. Director Des McAnuff. Sets John Arnone. Costumes Susan Hilferty. Lighting Richard Riddell. Sound John Kilgore. Musical direction John Schimmel. Fights staged by B. H. Barry. Production stage manager T. R. Martin. Stage manager Mireya Hepner. Assistant director Ross Wassermann. Casting Stanley Soble/Jason LaPadura, Richard Pagano/Sharon Bialy. With Dean Abston, Susan Berman, William Brennan, Jere Burns, Deryl Caitlyn, Michael Genovese, Jim Haynie, Barbara Howard, Gloria Mann, Sierra Pecheur, Douglas Roberts, Campbell Scott. Musicians Bill Coover, Tommy Rivers, John Schimmel. Plays at 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, with 2 p.m. matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. (This week a Thursday matinee replaces the Saturday one.) Closes Sept. 20. Tickets $14.50-$18.50. (619) 452-3960.