Del Shores' "Sordid Lives" at Theatre/Theater has more laughs than a hunting dog has ticks. In his long-running hit at the same venue, "Daddy's Dyin' . . . Who's Got the Will?" (later made into a film), Shores proved himself a master of the Texas comedy. His sprawling new work is just as funny--maybe funnier.
A native Texan, Shores stokes "Lives" with the colorful characters and idiomatic wit of his birthplace. To be sure, Shores' reality is slightly heightened, but this play shouldn't be mistaken for a farce. Shores' eccentrics, for the most part, are dead-on, teetering on a Bowie knife's edge between improbability and the commonplace.
The plot evolves from a hilariously unlikely premise. Peggy Sue Ingram, widowed mother of big-haired party girl LaVonda (Ann Walker) and prim, proper Latrelle (Mary-Margaret Lewis), has died in a motel room under questionable circumstances. (While trysting with former Vietnam vet G.W. Nethercott [Mitch Carter], Peggy Sue falls over G.W.'s wooden legs and has a brain hemorrhage.)
As the family copes with this tragedy-scandal, they must also reconsider the plight of Peggy Sue's flamboyantly transvestite son Brother Boy (Leslie Jordan), whom Peggy Sue wrongfully slapped in an insane asylum some 20 years ago.
Meanwhile, Latrelle's gay son Ty (Kirk Geiger), a New York-based actor, faces the prospect of "coming out" to his mother; meanwhile, LaVonda's best friend Noleta (Patrika Darbo), waxes increasingly furious about husband G.W.'s infidelity; meanwhile, Brother Boy tries to pacify a power-mad therapist (Rosemary Alexander) intent upon his "de-homosexualization," as Peggy Sue's sister Sissy (Beth Grant), the sweet moral center of the piece, struggles in the throes of severe cigarette withdrawal.
Shores, directing his work for the first time here, keeps the one-liners zinging with the dexterity of a mule skinner lashing flies off his team's hindquarters.
Among this exceptional cast, which also includes Newell Alexander and Earl Bullock, a few performances are particularly noteworthy. Grant's beautifully underplayed character mingles rural stoicism with unwitting drollery. Lewis explores the depths of her initially shallow character. Jordan's drag queen is achingly authentic. Darbo and Walker kick butt and take names as two feisty gal pals on the warpath. And as the honky-tonkin' town floozy, Margot Rose warbles country tunes between scenes.
Occasionally, Shores over-tips his delicate balance and slips into farce. The therapist's behavior seems unmotivated and strained, as does Wardell's subsequent violence. And the unexpectedly bitter last line is jarringly downbeat.
However, despite a few flaws, Shores' show is unequivocally hilarious, a riotous, gut-busting romp that plumbs the Texas-size peculiarities of its magnificently offbeat characters with piercing wit and great good humor.
* "Sordid Lives," Theatre/Theater, 1713 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 and 7 p.m. Ends June 30. $12-$15. (213) 660-8587. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.