Cowboy Mouth / Thick Like Piano Legs
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 22, 2006
The most striking thing about this pairing of two one-act plays from Disgraced Productions is how seamless and thematically pure it is: though one of the evening's two pieces is a 35-year-old rock-n-roll fantasia by Sam Shepard while the other is a brand new piano bar drama by young playwright/director Robert Attenweiler, the pairing feels organic and inevitable: two wistful looks at the elusive American Dream, melancholy and redemptive at the same time.
The sympatico feel extends to the production itself, which features exemplary sets for both plays, designs that convey the naturalistic and dreamlike qualities of the plays with splendid precision while acknowledging the limitations of the Red Room's intimate space and the ethos of downtown indie theatre that Shepard helped pioneer and whose torch Attenweiler is certainly carrying. (The set designers are Bret Haines and John Patrick Hayden.) In between the two plays—which are presented here, savvily, as if they were two acts of a single play instead of as two separate works—Adam Groves plays licks on an electric guitar, the longing chords of that music being the main link between the two stories told here.
The stories go like this. Thick Like Piano Legs, written and directed by Attenweiler, takes place in a Lower East Side bar called Cedric's. It's supposed to be Tom's last night playing piano here, as he has for years, except the piano is inexplicably missing; for reasons that are never entirely filled in, Tom's heading south to Georgia for a gig that, as it turns out, may not really be there either. Those reasons seem to involve one of the bartenders, a pretty girl named Joanie; and they probably also involve Tom's propensity for drink. Filling out the tale are a tough-minded bartender named Jack and a sad barfly, Billie, who is trying to use a mysteriously-acquired bankroll to get some control back over her life.
Cowboy Mouth, written by Shepard and directed with aplomb by Hayden, takes place in an unkempt motel room where a woman, Cavale, has brought a stranger named Slim on the pretense of turning him into a rock star. Each of these lost souls needs that promise for a different reason, and even though it's clear that Cavale cannot deliver anything tangible, it's just as evident that somehow both lives are transformed by this encounter; maybe even something approaching salvation occurs for one or the other. A delivery man from beyond (or perhaps just downstairs) called Lobster Man makes an enigmatic third point to this surreal triangle.
Attenweiler's play is poignant and moving; it feels like the kind of understated slice-of-life that William Inge might write if he were living in the Lower East Side nowadays (though there are traces of O'Neill and Williams here as well). If the story and structure of Thick Like Piano Legs doesn't surprise, the poetic dialogue almost always does: there's real beauty here, suggestive of a nascent talent that absolutely bears watching. Attenweiler's staging is commendable as well, and if all four of the actors are noticeably too young for their roles, they nevertheless turn in good work here, especially Bret Haines as the bearlike bartender and Nathan Williams as the piano man at the end of his rope.
In contrast, Shepard's play is explosive: it's easy to see why his early work got people so excited and riled up. I love the mix of reality and unreality in Cowboy Mouth—it elevates what could be a cliched or coarse yarn into a rich and universal work of art. (Many contemporary playwrights—Adam Rapp comes to mind—could learn much from this.) Hayden's staging is sublime: claustrophobic, uplifting, and always startling. Becky Benhayon as Cavale and Adam Groves as Slim both do excellent work.
There are just a few more chances to catch this fine double bill. But I know I'll be watching for the next works from Disgraced Productions eagerly.