Sometimes the best thing in the world is to watch a show cold. You know, to have no idea what's coming.
That's what I did with the Alley Theatre’s world premiere of Robert Askins’ comedy The Carpenter, an outgrowth of the 2017 Alley All New Festival. I had missed the Cypress native's play called Hand to God back in 2015, and by all accounts, I had missed out. So I was excited to see what was coming.
And I wasn’t disappointed when I saw the stunning stage, with a gilded spiral staircase dominating the gilded balcony of a Highland Park estate, where money and privilege inform the lives of Terry (a high strung and hilarious Valeri Mudek) and her rich, drunken, gun-toting daddy, Kip (T. Ryder Smith). Bravo to Arnulfo Maldonado’s scenic design—whether a minimalist beer joint or the pre-wedding Dallas palace where disguise and desire rupture audience expectations, even up to the very last scene.
Also spot-on were the costumes by Melissa Ng. From mom-plaid shirts to a clever wedding dress that survives intense physical demands, I can confidently say that hipster pants and regular guy jeans are never going to be mixed up in anyone’s mind ever again. And I will say that I marveled at the outfits worn by Venus, played by the Gretchen Wilson (Brooke Wilson), who went way beyond the requirements for playing your run-of-the-mill stripper to reach a new level of physical comedy, both in terms of movement and comic timing.
So how does a stripper show up in a wedding play? Well, first add a shot of separated siblings who find each other through Facebook (a wild, autobiographical element that Askins incorporates) and then blend that with the class differences of Dan—hipster par excellence who has climbed the social ladder a bit through a combination of a Baylor education and some kind of tech-y start up that's made him plenty of dough. See how social passing is a great prelude to the farcical á la Shakespeare identity switching that fuels the whole play? I know: You have to suspend disbelief, but go ahead and do that. If you go with people not being able to recognize their own kin and/or betrothed, you’ll have a much better time.
And this is what this play is about: having a good time, enjoying the rivalries between Dallas, Houston, and the forlorn subdivisions which are the provinces of the state. Austin is kinky, small towns are nowhere, and people have to grapple with identity politics based on where they are from. The first half of the play was my favorite, as it sets up a wistful and quasi-tragic scenario, full of potential for high drama.
But when the plot veers off into the comedic, then the physically comedic, and finally to the farcical, then you have a dizzying spectrum of trajectories that always keeps things lively, even if those are not your favorite versions of humor. After intermission, things get a little too three-ring-circus-y for my taste, but I still enjoyed it, even up to the bizarre and shocking ending that threw me for a loop. But never mind: I am telling you, this audience was engaged and entertained the whole time, and there are plenty of clever lines and twists to keep even the most skeptical audience member on board.
I also loved the cast. Maybe my favorite was Wade McCollum as Gene, and maybe he does get to bookend the whole show, and while he is kind of dumb in how he has lived his life, he isn’t totally dumb, and he gets a lot of the best lines. So what is not to love? Because forget “Southern Literature” for a sec, this is a play about Texas, and McCollum is the real deal. He is pretty much the bar for all of the other performances in this show.
Yet this is still a great ensemble cast, with exaggerated mannerisms that fit the piece and ensure plenty of laughs. Ken Wulf Clark as Dan is a good foil to Gene, and their Freaky Friday experiments are not just funny, but also an interesting commentary on how phony we can be concerning the quality of our own lives. The coked-up, ambitious Steve (Buddy Haardt) passes the comedy baton well, and it is a fun thing to watch. Cass Morgan as Cheryl is wonderful as the drama queen mom with the perfect Texas twang and rejoinder for every comment thrown her way; her fake news hypochondria is a marvel to behold. Same with the nymphomaniac BFF/party girl/bridesmaid Claire (Jessica Savage), who livens up every scene with her uptown vulgarity. Also, sequins.
I really cannot put it better than the playwright himself: “The Carpenter is a play about people pretending to be other people and dealing with imposter syndrome, when the stakes seem very high." Except in The Carpenter, watching this syndrome is fun, especially since it is somebody else. This is a superlative, award-winning, and mostly super-experienced cast. So simmer down and have some fun. I know I did.
Thru Feb. 10. Tickets from $26. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave. 713-220-5700. More info and tickets at alleytheatre.org.