Princes of Waco
nytheatre.com review by Heather Lee Rogers
January 11, 2010
You like it tough? Texas tough? Then maybe you'd like it tough like Princes of Waco by Robert Askins. In this gritty play, life's so tough that the air between people smells like battery acid. It's a play full of attitude, whiskey, pocket knives, and lost dreams. Waco's a tough place to grow up. It seems like there's only Bad Men or Jesus to emulate. The sinners keep sinning to get saved by the angels who save and save until they're sinners too. It's a town where a terrified kid with nothing left to hold onto but his dead father's watch can have his whole life screwed by one unlucky encounter. It's a town where teenagers can throw their lives away in an instant with one bad step that blows back at them from the desert for the rest of their lives. It's where the dirtiest, cheapest bar in town is ironically stuck behind the Baby Gap. It's a world "full up with things everybody knows and nobody says."
At the top of the play we see Jim (a boy of 17) sitting in shock in a seedy bar staring at his mug of beer. A grizzled old bully named Fritz tells him "You got to drink it fer it to work." Soon enough Jim's manipulated by Fritz into a whiskey-drinking wild man in trouble with the law, despite the edge of a romance with Esme, a motherless girl who goes to his school. But then by the second act everything changes except, of course, Waco, the cheap bar, and Toasty (the bar's spirited, ball-busting proprietress played perfectly by Christine Farrell).
As one would expect from Youngblood (Ensemble Studio Theatre's hot program for developing young playwrights), the writing is terrific. It's dark, lyrical, smart, and funny as hell. All four characters in the play are well-rounded, fascinating fun. It was exciting to see Evan Enderle as Jim and Megan Tusing as Esme take the four-year leap between the acts. Scott Sowers as Fritz (the hardened, alcoholic trouble-maker) is a hoot to watch and everything you want a character like that to be. According to the program, these three main actors have been part of the play's development. Their fleshed-out characters and deeply invested work from that journey is clearly evident.
Director Dylan McCullough's work coordinating the actors and technical elements into such a rich landscape should also be commended. But the pacing of the show should at times be faster. Though the world of the play lends itself to slow drawls, long swigs, and macho posturing, there were times when I felt like I got out ahead of the actors's actions and words. I could tell by the faces and bodies what trouble would go down next. Which is not to say that the play is predictable. On the contrary, the play is lots of fun as it weaves between being a wild west coming-of-age saga and delivering interesting twists you don't see coming. But as I watched I really wanted those twists to knock me flat and breathless with surprise.
Waco is a tough place to grow up. But that doesn't stop its denizens from trying hard to muscle their way back to their troubled youths just to avoid the present. Princes of Waco delivers hilarious one-liners, slugs and stings real bad, but in the end it's a story of sadness. It's the desperate longing for a more beautiful life and sweeter air in the space between people who could have been friends.