Laundry And Bourbon / Lone Star - Review by Simon Jenner

Mark Lester makes his debut as director in James McLure’s linked on-act plays Laundry and Bourbon and Lone Star.

McLure’s real southern territory got flickering notice on Broadway for Lone Star, but he never made it back there. Like the very different Robert Holman, he has a following for making noise quietly.

These one-acters are quiet shouters: naturalist slices of hamburger life, riven with aspiration, desperation and an end to trauma. It’s post-Vietnam. Laundry and Bourbon and Lone Star pass an hour each in real time across the lives of three women, then three men, variously struggling people in Maynard, Texas.

The first sets up the second, since Elizabeth the central character from Laundry and Bourbon is married to Roy, the protagonist of Lone Star. Lone Star in fact came first in 1979, paired with another short about injured Vietnam Vets that McLure then extended. McLure then retrospectively added Laundry and Bourbon in 1981 to play before Lone Star. Set in a backyard, it takes place hours before and during the latter’s timescale in a downtown bar.

Simon Glazier and his team (George Walter and five scene-painters) use the simple reversible backyard of house, flat and naturalistic as a brown Hopper homestead, with the grey-scaled grotty backyard of a bar later, with a full moon up – appropriate since there’s a real full blood moon at the outset of this run. Keith Dawson’s lighting enjoys satisfying nuances in the second play, where night draws on.

Ian Black’s sound bounces the melancholy twang of the period wherever country and western meet bluegrass and pop. Pat Boxall’s costume design wickedly digs at the accidental replication of two dresses, green with yellow sunflowers, and mid-seventies period dress, all run up by Sue Salt.

At a time David Mamet and Sam Shepard exploded onto the America theatre scene, McLure’s naturalism closer in mood to Shepard, was crowded into a shade. Lauded for its truthfulness it lacked the zany darkness Shepard found in similar scenarios, and indeed Shepard’s refactory, complex scope and vestigially believable denouements. Nor of course would McLure even attempt the adrenalin-
rush hassle of Mamet in his own ironic twists. There’s a Chekhovian patience to McLure that’s winning on its own terms and his writing will endure.

Laundry and Bourbon
Sarah Drew’s Elizabeth waits for her ‘wild’ husband Roy. We don’t know for how long, nor does her friend Hattie, played to the hilt by Kate McGann as a noisy but well-meaning best friend. Elizabeth’s patient, stand-by-your-man (even to accepting his flings) Hattie, dumped by her exciting lover Wayne, both admires Elizabeth for keeping up with the wildest (and sexiest) man round, and cajoles her for accepting his infidelities. But more importantly, there’s that pink 1959 Thunderbird that exists as his
freedom. Elizabeth frankly revels in recalling sex in the backseat beating any bed, and after ten years her own passion’s undimmed, but she harbours (as we discover through each of the plays) two secrets.

Drew’s capacity to draw in an audience to her small-scale ambitions, to hold on to and expand just a little of what acetylene-blasting voice modulates to tenderness and reverie on occasion, lending this vibrant shadow of a role real chiaroscuro.

This interaction is a slow patient reveal between both actors. Drew allows us to see Elizabeth’s capacity for patience, empathy, lack of material ambition is admirable whilst exposing her vulnerability: doormat status. It’s not – as we find out – that Roy takes Elizabeth’s love entirely for granted. McLure’s gift is to portray the dilemmas of a couple still vibrantly in love after ten years. But there’s unspoken conditions attached. They don’t have children. And the car is one of Roy’s lodestars, his ‘pussy wagon’
as he later terms it. Every engine cough brings Elizabeth anxiously out, but she knows that engine: it’s never the one.

That’s to anticipate. The similarly unspoken alliances between Elizabeth and Hattie are threatened when someone Hattie loathes – Amy Lee – arrives. Prosperously married (if for money), and wearing the same dress as Hattie, she makes everything in that straight-talking woman bristle like static up a nylon dress. To this bridge-playing enclave she’s introduced the new game that will supplant it: mahjong. And she’s brought it to Elizabeth without Hattie’s knowing. The fall-out is explosive, and though things are just about patched up, it opens a new space where Elizabeth reveals something after Amy Lee’s departure.

Isabella McCarthy Sommerville’s catalyst Amy Lee is beautifully coiffeured and this describes her performance. Normally famed for front-and-centre intensity, she proves she’s similarly adept at scratching comic roles such as here, and lends a little inwardness to a queasy character.

It’s a play whose patience occasionally seems to hang fire, but that’s when you need to be on guard. It certainly enriches what follows.

Lone Star
Cai Jones’ Vietnam Vet Roy has done a bunk for several days. It’s not that he’s really run out on Elizabeth. We’re here introduced to the full tragi-comic gamut of a man two years back from the war (so this is all 1975) and still not reconciled to a world where, as he wakes, men’s heads aren’t being blown off in front of him. Jones’s expression seems even throughout, shell-shocked slightly, dazed but capable of unnerving re-enactments. Jones manages the leatherneck uprightness and sudden leather cracks with a rivetingly fazed nonchalance.

That’s mostly at the expense of his slightly dopey brother Ray, who wasn’t fit enough to join up. In Matthew Wyn Davies’s wincingly fine portrayal, we’re introduced to someone not quite savant-like, though he understands engines, hopelessly naïve, somehow slow to take up life. Until we find he isn’t. Not quite. Never one to even rival his roistering brother’s sexual conquests, he protests he’s not quite a virgin. You might think this face-saving.

Chaffing though is nothing to the mirror-situation we’ve just witnessed in Laundry and Bourbon. Roy can’t stand Cletis, here gawkily, embarrassingly well portrayed by Neil Drew. He wants heroic Roy’s approval, but Roy can’t stand him.

As Roy stumbles off briefly, Cletis makes a terrible confession to Ray, but begs Ray to deliver this to Roy. Faced with Roy again, Cletis flees. However, before he does this, Ray makes a confession of his own, one that is so astonishing it might be designed to ensure Cletis’s misdemeanours fall in its shadow. and Ray fears Roy might kill him. Roy claims he loves his wife, his country and his car. He’ll need to make some adjustments before and after he stumbles home to the most remarkable truth of all.

McLure proves here over his two plays he can command symbolism and naturalism in a compellingly believable way. It’s more than good to have got to know this quiet master. Yet again NVT deliver small shrouded gems of Americana.

Review by Simon Jenner - first appeared in www.fringereview.co.uk