Jon Klein's "T Bone n Weasel" is a cartoon of a play, a slapdash journey by two woeful figures through racist and opportunist America. In the bumpy new production of this decade-old script at Columbia's Rep Stage, one of the characters enters wearing a Fred Flintstone T-shirt. This gets a giggle for a number of reasons, the funniest of which is that the actor wearing it, and his sidekick, are using foot power to scoot a crude little car around the stage, just like Fred and Barney used to do on the tube.
Director Jackson Phippin gives it the "Les Miz" treatment as two low-grade criminals (Joseph Andrew Mills III as T Bone and Timothy Andres Pabon as Weasel) slide from one misadventure to another in sleepy South Carolina. The staging is dominated by set designer Richard Montgomery's slowly rotating turntable, which eases the characters from liquor store to used car lot to political rally to jail, to cite just a few of the locales. Highway signs and roadside junk lazily spin by as T Bone and Weasel amble or drive, depending on how their luck is running.
At every stop they bump into a colorful someone: a nut-job holy man living under a bridge, a grinning, slithery cop who blithely separates them from the money they just stole, a randy old hag who hires them as day laborers and commands special services that they're in no position to refuse. These figures are all played by Peter Wray, who despite having to don a few alarmingly bad wigs manages to be entertaining in almost every part. (His biggest score, naturally, is as the randy hag; Wray struts around looking like a truck driver in a dress, striking fear into the hearts of the fellas and prompting laughter from the audience.)
The gallery of supporting characters aren't individually identified in the play's program; Klein just calls them all The Man, deliberately conjuring up that vague but palpable presence that keeps the underclass down. Blacks particularly: T Bone is African American, the smarter of the two, and he's constantly perturbed that Weasel -- his hapless white-boy sidekick, the halfwit dupe in the cartoon shirt -- never quite sees a pattern to the misfortunes in their lives.
With a production that's really cooking, that sentiment (heck, might as well call it a message) gradually pushes its way through the high jinks, catching the audience off guard with its sudden inarguable sense. That's how it worked when Phippin directed the show at Baltimore's Center Stage in the 1990s.
At Rep Stage, though, "T Bone" never really gets out of first gear, primarily due to sluggish, earnest leading performances. Mills as T Bone aptly conveys the sense of a man who somehow deserves better but can't get an even break; he's got the dignity thing down cold. But there isn't much rapport between him and Pabon, who leans on punch lines with the subtlety of an angry motorist stuck in traffic. In Pabon's hands, Weasel's antics are awfully labored -- a candid bit of butt-scratching, right cheek not so much exposed as exhibited, exemplifies the approach -- and Mills overdoes the gravity of T Bone's response.
A certain weariness in T Bone is appropriate, of course; Klein's play wants to make a point about how tough it can be trying to scramble up the social ladder. But first it wants to be a lark: a road movie, a buddy picture, vaudeville. It's meant to be crude and fast and funny, but in this production it crawls along.
T Bone n Weasel by Jon Klein. Directed by Jackson Phippin. Lights, Marianne Meadows; costumes, Sally Montgomery; music/sound design, Aaron Broderick. Approximately 2 1/2 hours. Through Saturday at Rep Stage, Howard Community College, Columbia. Call 410-772-4900 or visit www.howardcc.edu/repstage.