Chekhov once quipped that "if there is a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, it must fire in the last." This basic dramaturgical tenet wasn't heeded in the productions of Cowboy Mouth by Sam Shepard and Thick Like Piano Legs by Robert Attenweiler, now playing at the Red Room. Nonetheless, the two one-acts packed enough heat to make an entertaining evening dedicated to down-at-their-heels musicians trying to find salvation amid the squalor of sex, drink, and rock 'n' roll. Attenweiler's new one-act depicts the regulars at a dive bar on the Lower East Side. The bar's struggling piano player, Tom (Nathan Williams), has one last big night to perform before he's off to Georgia.
When he enters the bar, however, he discovers someone's stolen his instrument. No one has a clue what happened to it. Upset that a "baby grand can't just fly away easy like, say, a baby elephant," Tom lashes out at the burly manager, Jack. Jack suspects Tom swiped it himself before scooting out of town. Meanwhile, Joanie, Tom's girlfriend and a cocktail waitress at the bar, gets upset that he has decided to leave her behind like "a chewed-off hangnail."
The play begins, though, with a fourth character, Billie, flashing a large wad of bills and asking Jack, "You wanna know where I got all this?" Jack would rather remain ignorant of what he suspects are her illicit dealings. Billie (Mary Guiteras) is a ne'er-do-well who lives out of her car and dreams of being a lounge singer. Like Tom, she's also back at the bar for one big last night—of boozing.
What I found odd was that the play never suggests a connection between the big wad of bills that Billie suddenly and inexplicably possesses and the conspicuously missing piano. To me, this looked like the gun that never went off, and could have acted as a dramatic decoy in the "case of the missing piano." As it is, Billie, though an amusing drunk, becomes somewhat extraneous to the plot.
Despite its loose construction, the play has enough action to hold one's interest. Attenweiler's one-act evokes the ambience of Tom Waits's ballads through its drunk and dreamy characters' slangy, exuberant dialect that's prone to down-home idioms and exaggerated storytelling, though the language slips into mannerism on occasion.
Likewise, the actors display panache and swagger without overdoing it most of the time. Bret Haines as Jack evinced a quiet control that radiated the sly worldliness, if not weariness, of the longtime bartender. Vina Less, as Joanie, conveyed the love-struck hysterics of a bright-eyed youth without resorting to melodramatic screaming.
"Cowboy Mouth," an early Shepard rock opera he co-wrote with Patti Smith, is pure spontaneous combustion throughout. Two lovers alternately argue and entertain each other with silly games in a seedy apartment. Slim unleashes his frustrations on his guitar, but can't quite be the rock 'n' roll savior that his quirky girlfriend, Cavale, hopes for. She's torn between romanticizing Johnny Ace, the black rock 'n' roll star who blew his brains out, and her more domestic dreams of owning a dishwasher and fancy shoes.
Bored, poor, and strung-out, the two lovers play out a fantasy life where they frolic like animals, pretend to go shopping, and make up wild stories. Eventually, they call the Lobster Man to get them some food. This strange delivery person intrigues them, and they call him back as a kind of prank to see what will happen.
Shepard's stage directions end the play on an intentionally ambivalent note, with the Lobster Man, unveiled as the rock 'n' roll savior, spinning the gun Cavale uses in her Johnny Ace monologue in a game of Russian roulette. The hammer strikes an empty chamber, and the lights slowly fade to black.
But director John Patrick Hayden chose to ignore the detail about the gun from Shepard's staging, and ends with the rock 'n' roll savior exultantly sprouting wings while Hendrix blares like an angelic chorus in the background. Without the gun clicking on an empty chamber, Shepard's well-constructed and grim parable about becoming disillusioned with the false idols of rock 'n' roll seems to have turned into a feel-good spectacle.
Overlooking my minor quibble with the last image, though, this fast-paced and exciting production is like a reckless joy ride with a stolen car. Becky Benhayon brings spunk, humor, and her own eccentricities to her interpretation of the peculiarly morbid yet bouncy character of Cavale, while Adam Groves delights with his boyish charm as the jumpy, energetic Slim.
While there weren't any smoking guns, these two one-acts successfully capture the explosive energy of down-and-out drifters in sexy, smoke-filled dives. Like rock 'n' roll itself, with its all-or-nothing attitude in the face of youth's big hopes and slim chances, these plays help life's disappointments seem a little less lonesome.