The "plucky waitress" is probably a literary genre by now. A line can be traced from the feisty waitress who refused Jack Nicholson his side order of wheat toast in "Five Easy Pieces," through the faded diner denizens of "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," to the singing hash-slingers in "Pump Boys and Dinettes," the characters in "Last Days at the Dixie Girl Cafe" and TV's "Alice" and "Flo." Spicy, seen-it-all characters who seldom mince words, waitresses can become wonderfully colorful characters in the right hands.
"Chili Queen," a new play by Jim Lehrer, is the latest entry in the weathered-waitress sweepstakes, but, sad to say, it's full of beans. At the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, Lehrer's bland, meatless "Chili," an inflated altercation between a waitress and an irate customer in an east Texas diner, is about as appetizing and nutritious as frozen chili on a stick. That indigestible concoction -- called a "Chili-sicle" -- is the play's running gag. And if that notion tickles you, perhaps "Chili Queen" is your plat du jour after all.
We're greeted by twangy music and highway sounds as the lights go up on the Chili Queen roadside diner, where waitress Velma Louise Allen, franchise owner Junior Denison and Sheriff Duane Sherman make the smallest of small talk. Then Buddy Hardeman, an unemployed service station attendant who has just spent $224 on a new transmission for his 1978 Impala, comes in and orders a red-hot chili burger and a Dr Pepper.
Buddy gets his burger, but he claims Velma shortchanged him: He insists he gave her a twenty, and she returned change for $10. And Velma, a career waitress with a 20-year reputation for honesty and accuracy, insists he's lying. This results in a squabbling standoff, with Buddy calling Velma "yellow-teeth thief" and Velma spitting variations on "puke" ("rattlesnake puke," "worm puke," "pukey punk") ad nauseam.
After a lot of this infantile gassing, Buddy somehow gains control of Junior's gun, beginning the play's suspenseless stalemate -- Buddy demands his change and an apology; Velma refuses to back down. The police are called, the ruckus attracts the attention of the local press, and Velma and Buddy enjoy the momentary thrill of being media stars. There's a funny moment (familiar from Steven Spielberg's "Sugarland Express") as the two self-consciously pose for the TV cameras in the diner window while listening to what's being said about them. At this late date in the play, Lehrer broadly hints at an Oedipal subtext as the waitress and the outlaw become uneasy allies, swapping stories about the "worst thing that ever happened to me." But by then it's much too late to care.
Lehrer reportedly based his play on an incident he witnessed while on a trip through Texas. Apparently the playwright didn't stay for the end of the argument, and his conclusion is far from satisfactory. Nothing in the weightless nattering preceding it justifies the mean-spirited, easy-way-out ending.
Perhaps the playwright transcribed this altercation verbatim -- the dialogue certainly sounds as banal and impoverished as real life. As in David Byrne's recent film "True Stories," city slicker Lehrer looks at small-town Texan types, striving for Real People ruralisms and a poetry of the inarticulate.
But like Byrne, Lehrer makes the tactical error of looking at his characters through the wrong end of a telescope, poking fun at their modest goals and emphasizing their self-pity as they "whine, whine, whine" about their petty, unfulfilled lives. And as Velma and Buddy trade the insipid put-downs that pad out the play, name-calling like petulant children, Lehrer diminishes and insults both his characters and the audience.
Director Frances Hill only exacerbates the schematic stiffness and redundancies of the script. Where Lehrer sets up two simultaneous conversations, Hill awkwardly alternates them, choppily interrupting one to continue the other. And Hill doesn't give us much to watch after we've taken in Reagan Cook's set, leaving the characters stranded and motionless for long stretches.
The actors thankfully avoid Texas caricatures, but they go to the other extreme, creating colorless, dispirited characterizations. Jayne Chamberlin wears a dour expression as Velma, but provides a brief glimpse of shy sweetness when she primps before facing the television cameras. Rick J. Porter looks a bit too buffed to be convincing as Buddy, and was too careless with his lines. Paul Doherty fails to register as Junior; and Fred Burrell recycles the stock impression of the southern sheriff.
Chili Queen, by Jim Lehrer. Directed by Frances Hill; setting, Reagan Cook; lighting, Pat Dignan; costumes, Richard Curtis. With Fred Burrell, Jayne Chamberlin, Paul Doherty, Rick J. Porter. At the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater through Aug. 8.