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Theater | * STAGE REVIEW

Wild West Poignancy and Parody

Clever writing and first-rate acting enable 'Texarkana Waltz' to spoof cowboys and trigger our emotions at the same time.

October 15, 1998|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Singing cowboys, inflatable cactuses and echoes of "Hamlet"--the unlikely counterpoint of Wild West parody and Elizabethan revenge tragedy--propels Circle X Theatre Company's premiere of "Texarkana Waltz" to dazzling lunacy at the Los Angeles Playhouse.

One of those rare works that manages to tickle the funny bone while plucking the heartstrings, Louis Broome's well-crafted, semi-autobiographical play employs modern and classical sensibilities to examine the troubled Wicketts, an Oklahoma clan coping with its violent past.

To the yelping strains of country songs, a stylized flashback ballet recounts the smoldering passion and courtship between dirt-poor Eddie (Burton Curtis) and Emma (Cindy Basco), a couple whose respective ambitions rise no higher than another beer and clean laundry. Both dreams are tragically soiled when a drunken Eddie kills his wife with a broken bottle, leaving an indelible stain not only on Emma's prized blouse but on their children as well.

In the present, institutionalized Houston (Paul Morgan Stetler) languishes in catatonic withdrawal from which his sister Dallas (Alice Dodd) rescues him, dragging him home to wrestle their past demons.

For the introverted Houston, this confrontation takes the form of a hilarious imaginary horse opera in which he tracks his father across the prairie, accompanied by a pair of amiable gunslingers (Todd Beadle and William Salyers, who also assume other roles). With the ghost of his mother spurring him on to vengeance (in meticulous iambic pentameter, no less), Houston must overcome his Hamlet-like paralysis and reclaim his long-delayed initiation into manhood through a shootout with his pa. Meanwhile, Dallas grapples with emotional blockage in her gay relationship with uncomprehending Morgan (Dina Morgan). Laura Kellogg Sandberg and Kyle McCullough effectively render supporting characters.

For all its grim overtones, Broome's quirky writing sparkles with playful wit in Allison Narver's crisp staging, aided by a whimsically inventive design team (Gary Smoot, sets; Matthew O'Donnell, lighting; and M.E. Dunn, costumes).

Amid the broadest satire, the first-rate cast is all commitment bereft of camp or mugging. There's not a hint these characters realize their own inanity, which makes them all the funnier. Particularly accomplished are Curtis' complex Eddie (not a bad man, but a perpetual adolescent incapable of sorting experience), Basco's demure Emma (who launches into a sidesplitting stream of invectives at her murderin' hubby), and Beadle's succession of peripheral cowboy, prison warden and Pentecostal preacher (all named Bob).

"Texarkana Waltz" entertains on many levels--enjoy it for its first-rate cowboy spoofing, its poignant plea for familial healing, or its eloquent poetic sensibilities--but enjoy it you will.

BE THERE

"Texarkana Waltz," Los Angeles Playhouse, 1625 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Nov. 14. $15. (323) 969-9239, Ext. 2. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

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