In "T Bone N Weasel" a pair of ex-cons, knocking about the back country of South Carolina, ricochet from one adventure in petty crime to another and find themselves outwitted at every turn.
I know this, because Jon Kline's play opened Tuesday night at the Round House Theatre and I was there. I saw the two churning up the dust in their stolen Buick, getting soused on rubbing alcohol and grape juice and chasing bobolinks from Verna Mae Beaufort's rice paddies.
I saw their run-ins with Happy Sam, the sleazy used-car dealer; Doc Tatum, the hypocritical politician on the hustings; and one of those redneck sheriffs who would sooner take a bribe than press charges.
T Bone, who is black and more skeptical of human beings than Weasel, who is white and incorrigibly naive, fought and made up and fought again -- inseparable for all their differences. This too I saw.
At one point, T Bone, speaking of an unattractive woman, noted that "she could turn a train down a dirt road." Weasel said his specialty was "conversating." Someone (I believe it was Happy Sam) described folks so low "they could walk under the belly of a snake." I wrote all that down, thinking it characteristic of the rustic dialogue I was hearing.
And yet I wouldn't swear to any of the above now. Now it all seems like a forgotten Hollywood buddy movie to me. Or maybe a TV series that I watched sometime during my childhood. It certainly doesn't seem like a play.
I dare say this is happening more and more. "The Cemetery Club," recently at the Eisenhower Theater, could have been an episode of "The Golden Girls." "T Bone N Weasel" is in the not-so-proud tradition of "The Dukes of Hazzard" and the "Smokey and the Bandit" flicks. Less and less, it seems, do plays have other plays as antecedents.
Since the theater is not as adroit as film, when it comes to changing locales, announcements are flashed on an upstage billboard in "T Bone N Weasel." "Inside De Sto," for instance, precedes a bungled robbery in a general store. "Edesto Beach at 3 a.m." finds the two picaresque heroes drunk in the sand.
What usually follows is a brief scene, a punch line and then a blackout. The scenes are strung out like wash on a clothesline. When you come to the end of the line, you've reached the end of the play. Kline's plot goes through some twists and turns, but pretty much the same thing is happening over and over. The dolts hatch a plan to rip off somebody; it blows up in their faces. Any 10-minute segment of the play could serve as an accurate measure of the whole.
Director Jeff Davis does what he has to do. He keeps the performances lively and the action skittering right along. At least no one's pretending there's more here than meets the eye. As Weasel, Ernie Meier makes a likable hick -- impulsive, trusting and boyish. Even when he's standing stock still, he gives the impression he's getting under someone's feet. And while he doesn't have two wits to rub together, his mind buzzes and hums with half-baked schemes and reflections.
By comparison, Harry Tate's T Bone, so named for a T-shaped scar on his shin, is a pillar of strength and sagacity. (That means that he at least sees the cream pies coming, whereas Weasel has to get hit smack in the puss before deducing something's up.) The script doesn't underline the prejudice that T Bone encounters in this world, nor does Tate. A cocked eyebrow and a weary shrug say it all. Deft, that.
Robert DeFrank plays all the other characters in what amounts to a gallery of Southern-fried rogues. He's amusing for the first act, but after a while a certain drawling sameness settles into his characterizations. The actor tends to tar males and females, the crazed and the crafty, with the same broad brush.
Jane Williams Flank's set brings together in a happy jumble a back porch, car seats, a section of a bridge, a soft-drink cooler, a diner booth and other artifacts of the Deep South. Rosemary Pardee's thrift shop costumes haven't seen the inside of a washing machine in months, which is as it should be. And Joseph Ronald Higdon's lighting suggests the sultriness of Carolina in the morning and night. I can't say I have quibbles with any of them.
I just wish Kline had written more of a play. You know, something that takes place on a stage, because the stage is its rightful home. A play, I would have remembered.
T Bone N Weasel. By Jon Kline. Directed by Jeff Davis. Scenery, Jane Williams Flank; lighting, Joseph Ronald Higdon; costumes Rosemary Pardee; sound, Neil McFadden. With Harry Tate, Ernie Meier, Robert DeFrank. At the Round House Theatre through June 24.