It's sometime in the early '70s, and since the interstate opened a while back, business has been slow at a roadside New Mexico cafe.
A Volkswagen van stops outside, in need of a generator, and its driver and passenger--hippies, from the look of 'em--come in to have breakfast while waiting for the spare part.
The hippie, a brawny fellow called Teddy, soon shakes the cafe's habitues out of their complacency, and he isn't particularly gentle about how he does it.
Such is the setting and opening of Mark Medoff's "When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder," the Plaza Players' current production, directed by Michael Maynez.
Fraught with physical and emotional violence, the play caused something of a sensation when it opened off-Broadway for the 1974-75 season. It marked the debut of playwright Medoff, who would go on to write the quite different "Children of a Lesser God."
Fifteen years later, the symbolism isn't particularly subtle, and the plot travels a straight line from beginning to end. The play could be compressed into one act without much loss.
None of the characters are particularly appealing; most of the principals are wishy-washy at best, losers at worst. And, of course, Teddy himself is a sociopath.
The play doesn't make much sense in places. That VW replacement generator is available in 15 minutes on a Sunday morning out there in the New Mexico desert. And characters are missing any number of opportunities to simply call the police when Teddy starts acting up.
Where "Red Ryder" excels is as a showcase for actors. And the Plaza Players have come up with some excellent work this time around.
The strongest performance comes from Elmo Stokely, whose characterization of cafe night-man Stephen (Red) Ryder--a young man at a self-imposed dead end--is about as far as can be imagined from his plucky Puck in the Players' last production, "A Midsummer Night's Dream." (The part was originated by Brad Dourif, who would play an even more repressed character in the film "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.")
Linda Lacey plays Angel, a waitress who is about half heart and half mouth--her unthinking remarks provoke Teddy several times. Braden McKinley is affable service-station owner Lyle, whose efforts to do Teddy a favor (despite Teddy's wishes to the contrary) induce Teddy to further violence. And Plaza Players regular Ronald Rezak gives a glittering cameo performance as the owner of the cafe-service station-motel complex.
Christine Couvillion plays concert violinist Clarisse and Hugh McManigal is her husband; they're en route to a New Orleans engagement and have the bad luck to stop here for coffee and a fill-up. Melissa Fair is seen as Cheryl, Teddy's girlfriend.
The strongest character is that of Teddy, and Doug Stuart makes the fellow downright scary. For one thing, he's physically imposing; for another, he's obviously as intelligent as he is nuts. It's to Stuart's credit, probably, that some members of the audience find his belittling of Ryder amusing. (A minor quibble: It's unlikely that Teddy would keep his clothes so clean and well-pressed, but you never know.)
Stuart is also credited with design of the atmospherically tacky diner; he, Stokley and James Angle built it.
* WHERE AND WHEN
"When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder" plays Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through June 8 at the Plaza Players Theater, 34 N. Palm St. (in the Old Town Livery Courtyard) in Ventura. Tickets are $6 Wednesdays, $7.50 Fridays and $8.50 Saturdays. Call 643-9460 for reservations and information.