Devised by The Mad Ones over a two-year Archive Residency with the New Ohio Theatre and IRT Theater, The Essential Straight & Narrow grounds itself firmly in time and place: a low-rent motel room – designed by Laura Jellinek – in a backwater New Mexico town in the 1970s, all cheap fake-wood paneling with a small TV set on a wall shelf and an old rotary phone; all feathered hair and retro jeans and vinyl records. But too often, the focus feels more on style than substance. The production is rich in detail but those details don’t ever seem to add up to a whole. And though it seems clear that the characters (especially, perhaps, the minor ones) are affectionately imagined, they never feel like more than sketches.
All low-rent motels are much the same, and when actress Jo (Stephanie Wright Thompson) rehearses the climactic scene of a movie on a motel-room set, she falls into her memories of a previous motel and a previous existence. (While watching the piece, the relationship between these two levels of reality remains ambiguous and difficult to parse).
In her present, she’s playing a cop romantically involved with her partner, holed up in a motel room and on the hunt for a killer. The dialogue in these sections is every bit as stereotypical as the description implies—it’s an evocation of a type of movie and a type of woman-on-the-edge acting, which Thompson is able to embrace at least partly because we see a more genuine Jo, down-to-earth and wry, in the flashbacks.
In the past, she was a musician, trapped in a similar motel in Pinos Altos, New Mexico, by a broken-down tour bus. Other than the setting (and a necklace Jo wears), there’s no connection between the two stories other than Jo—and the piece never really tries to make a connection or give a sense of how that memory or past has informed or led to her present. While the present-day rehearsal segments show Jo working and re-working her way through her side of one particular scene—stuck in time, as it were—the flashbacks happen over a couple of eventful days. Jo, Gram (Joe Curnutte), and Paul (Michael Dalto), have set out on a reunion tour with their band, despite the fact that their reunion seems quite tenuous and reluctantly undertaken—at least on Gram’s part. They’ve barely rehearsed together and it seems clear that Paul and Jo have a different vision of what the upcoming show should look like.
When their bus breaks an axle in rural New Mexico, the presiding transgendered queen bee of the motel where they’re stuck, Debbie (Marc Bovino, enthusiastic and over-friendly), comes to investigate, ostensibly seeking her lost cat. She’s got big plans for a Halloween party in Jo’s room (according to Debbie, the best in the place), and if making friends with the newcomers is required to keep her plans on track, then that’s what she’ll do. Bonding—especially with Paul—over arts and crafts and a spirited game of $10,000 Pyramid, she gets the band on board with her big event.
Most of the play takes place in flashback, but still, that entire plot is essentially a series of diversions, indulgently nostalgic evocations of a period without a real purpose, or even any real sense of why the story is grounded in this particular time and place. There’s a bit of music but not a lot; there are many references to pop culture; there’s a tentative rapprochement between Gram and Jo—although there’s no indication in the present-day perspective, other than a bit of business with a necklace, as to the current state of that relationship. And without a strong sense of Jo as a character—either as an actress or a musician—it’s hard to invest in the piece on anything other than a superficial level.
The party scene, taken on its own, is the fullest evocation of the world of the play: Lila Neugebauer directs a slate of minor characters, all decked out in Halloween regalia, who are present only for this one scene and the result is a wryly funny snapshot. The locals—hippie types on a spectrum between stoned enthusiasm and burned-out deadbeats—who show up for the party add zest, but their eleventh-hour appearance also feels gimmicky, like there’s not enough energy among the principals to carry through to the end of the play.
All the members of the ensemble are interesting to watch, particularly Bovino and Thompson, but it’s not quite enough. The Mad Ones have successfully created a world and a mood, but the piece of theatre they’ve built doesn’t ever fully inhabit them.