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Theatre in Review: New Country (Cherry Lane Studio)

Sarah Lemp, Mark Roberts. Photo: Clay Anderson

The title New Country seems to suggest that the play is a comment on the moral bankruptcy of the Nashville music industry, although it may be that I'm giving it too much credit. Not that it is the sort of play to inspire charity: According to playwright Mark Roberts, life in the entourage of a country music star is nothing less than the ninth circle of hell. As it happens, watching it isn't much fun, either. Roberts is so relentlessly determined to expose each of his characters as loathsome double-crossers that it's all too easy to lose interest in their cheatin' hearts.

It's the night before the wedding of Justin Spears (clever name) and something other than the usual premarital jitters is afoot. Just before the bachelor party, Justin admits that he is letting his managers, Paul and Chuck, go, in favor of new representation. Of course, he still expects them to be among his groomsmen; after all, it's just show biz, right? What would you expect from a character who makes his entrance in an Obama mask, carrying a semi-automatic weapon, pretending to be a terrorist and forcing everyone onto the floor?

Are you chuckling yet? No? There's plenty more. Paul has already given Justin's marriage six months, tops, and Chuck has already complained endlessly, and unamusingly, about being paired with Justin's fat sister in the wedding party. Among the guests, invited or otherwise, are Jim, Justin's ailing, drug-addled uncle, who looks like a refugee from Duck Dynasty and comes toting a blow-up sex doll. ("Three hot, hungry holes, no waitin!'"); Sharon, Justin's vengeful ex, who, thanks to her stints in the army and police force, has a mean way with a gun; and Ollie, a hotel staffer who will do anything, and I mean anything, to get a CD of his songs into Justin's hands.

Having assembled this little bestiary, Roberts puts them to work, committing various treacheries, few, if any, of which prove engaging. There's a fine line between satirizing crass behavior and merely exhibiting it, a line that New Country crosses brazenly and repeatedly. Paul and Chuck decide that Justin's marriage will benefit if his unseen fiancée, who exhibits stalker tendencies, has a baby right away, "and if the baby is born with special needs, so much the better." Jim recalls his sexual encounter with an abnormally short woman: "Only time I got a blow job where people were standing up." Much of the dialogue is written with a wince-inducing country twang; for example, two characters are described as "fightin' like two birds over a bread crust," and a certain body part is referred to as "that one-eyed anaconda." In lieu of a credible plot or characters, Roberts supplies a multitude of twists, making for a very busy 80 minutes of diabetes, cancer, deception, closeted homosexuality, entrapment, blackmail, and attempted suicide.

Under the slam-bang direction of David Harwell, the actors accentuate the negative, resulting in a series of one-note performances. The standouts are Roberts, whose Uncle Jim is a credibly lost soul, and Sarah Lemp, whose fiercely committed performance as Sharon adds some badly needed tension to this free-for-all of bad behavior. She also delivers a nicely melancholy a capella version of the Hank Williams' classic "Lost Highway." Otherwise, everyone runs about and shouts, as they were no doubt directed to do.

Harwell's set design is a fairly convincing version of a Nashville hotel suite, complete with a photorealistic view of the city at night. (In a clever touch, before the play begins, the set's television shows a series of scenes from classic westerns, ranging from High Noon to The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.) Heather Baumbach's costumes neatly capture how Nashville's urban dwellers enjoy dressing as if they just came off the Santa Fe Trail. Tito Fleetwood Ladd's lighting and Johnna Doty's sound are both solid.

One of the more amusing sound effects involves the characters' ringtones, which are taken from such country-western classics as "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights" and "The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA." After about 15 minutes with this bunch, however, I was ready for a "D-I-V-O-R-C-E." -- David Barbour

(26 May 2015)

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