Playwright: Robert E. Sherwood. At: Strawdog Theater, 3829 N. Broadway. Tickets: 866-811-4111; www.strawdog.org; $28. Runs through: March 31
Our setting is a remote family-operated outpost abutting the tourist-attraction of the title in the Arizona desert. The proprietors extending hospitality to transient guests are a proud WWI vet, his pioneering old dad and his restless young daughter. On this fatal day, however, their torpor is invaded by an assortment of strangers including down-on-his-luck writer Alan Squire and gangster-on-the-lam Duke Mantee. In matter of hours, everyone's lives are altered permanently. "There's something here that stimulates the autobiographical impulse," observes the hard-drinking Squire as, one by one, the confessions of the prisoners align them into three camps: those mired down in the past, those who have abandoned their ambitions, and those who still yearn to control their destiny.
This American classic can be viewed as the prototype for hostage dramas to this day, as a Depression-era melodrama, or as a microcosm of the social malaise existing in our country between the two great wars of the 20th century. Film buffs know it as the vehicle that introduced Humphrey Bogart to Hollywood, and political science scholars are quick to note that its author left show business to become a speechwriter for President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Unfortunately, this Strawdog production tries to be all of these things in equal measure. Potentially intriguing psychological glimpsesan African-American gunman's attitude toward a wealthy couple's subservient chauffeur, for example, or a pair of tradesmen's views on communismare barely registered, even by the actors uttering them. Instead we get ersatz-cinematic effects, such as the spotlighting of individual players to simulate close-ups, and a disruptive score of Alfred Newman-esque incidental music piped in at a volume to render already muffled dialogue wholly inaudible.
The kind of marathon stamina demanded by American Realism is not easy for young actors, accustomed to far shorter sprints, to bring off, but the myth of the romantic desperado is not only an inextricable component of western literature, but our nation's history as welland therein lies the reason for this genre's enduring popularity. Jamie Vann and Paul Fagen grasp the parallels between the homicidal Mantee and the suicidal Squire, as do Caroline Neff, Walter Brody, Janice O'Neil and Shane Kenyon in their portrayals of familiar archetypes given fresh urgency by the eerie similarities of their motives to those faced by disgruntled citizens today. Wherever you find your dramatic tensions, it makes for gripping storytelling.