Playwright: Mark Roberts. At: Fair Trade Productions @ The Den, 1333 N. Milwaukee. Tickets: 800-838-3006; www.newcountrytheplay; $45. Runs through: May 14
The basic message of New Country is "don't abandon life." Or, life is worth living even for a sorry old pig-farmer who's 65 going on 75 and has burned half his brain away via sex, drugs, booze and country music, especially when he's made an offer by a smart, beautiful, 30-something babe who has a motorcycle and ovarian cancer.
Sharon ( Sarah Lemp ) has a lot of anger, too, but so do all the character in this dramedy, except young bellhop Ollie ( Colter O'Ryan Smith ), who instead has a sexual angle to play, entrapping angry C&W star Justin ( Michael Monroe Goodman ) the night before Justin's wedding, but it isn't really important because Ollie is just a plot device so Justin's angry manager ( Frank Nall ) and angry producer ( Will Clinger ), who's incensed 'cause he's paired with Justin's fat sister at the wedding, can blackmail Justin into not firing them.
So you have a bunch of characters who aren't very likeable and about whom you do not care, and most of whom have zilch impact on the old pig-farmer, Justin's quasi-hillbilly Uncle Jim, played by author, Mark Roberts. Yes, sure, this 90-minute show ( viewed at a preview performance ) has some funny lines and sharp, acerbic observations, as one would expect from Roberts with his huge success as a comedian, actor and writer-producer of hit TV comedies. But as Sharon remarks of relationships and life in general, "Everything sure looked better in the catalogue." The huge problem is the two-dimensionality of it all. Roberts' gloss of country good-ol'-boys and one good-ol'-girl is a reduced version of Nashville without the good music.
At the center of the play, an extended scene between Uncle Jim and Sharon ( Justin's ex of seven years who's come to confront him ) raises several interesting notions but Roberts doesn't pursue them. Has Uncle Jim actually penned Justin's hit songs? What will become of Justin and his managers when Uncle Jim is gone? Also, what IS the difference between old country music and the somehow-lesser "new country" of the play's title? Uncle Jim is old country, but everything about the play suggests Justin is new country, and yet both exhibit strong family loyalty ( which is another possibly-intriguing idea not pursued ).
The execution is very good. Even at a preview the actors gave strong, committed performances under director Ian Streicher, although not all comic moments were clicking ( and they need to click ). Roberts fully inhabits Uncle Jim but shares stage well. Kevin Hagan's scenic design is perfect, a posh Nashville power suite with palomino-look upholstery, a guitar-pattern rug and a Thomas Hart Benton print on the wall ( class touch ). New Country needs to be either very funny, or wickedly funny, and it's not quite either one.