When an aging rock star holds a drink more often than he picks up his guitar, he's clearly suffering from a career hangover in Mark Scharf's "Hired Gun." Although this Baltimore Playwrights Festival entry tends to be as thematically loud as that hard-drinking rocker, the play skillfully develops the escalating tension between the veteran star and a young session musician hired to perform on an intended comeback album.
This Theatrical Mining Company production directed by Stacey Bonds keeps a pretty tight focus on that precarious professional relationship. The minimal set design, for instance, makes us feel trapped within the rock star's oppressively confining home, where the musical arguments flow as freely as the booze.
The set largely consists of a rec room anchored by a much-frequented bar; and an area near the back of the stage that's used as the star's home recording studio, with its walls containing the gold records that attest to his stature back in the day.
This spare setting emotionally works to advantage, because the star lives in a surveillance camera-equipped rural compound in Louisiana that forcefully conveys his sense of isolation and paranoia.
Rodney Bonds is suitably grizzled and gruff as Dewitt, a rock star who has withdrawn into the southern woods that originally nurtured his blues-based rock music. The play takes place in 1994, so he's presumably a member of the generation that put southern rock on the national musical landscape in the 1950s and '60s.
Recorded music played between scenes reinforces the rock music historical context for "Hired Gun," but it's awkward that no music is actually played or sung by any of the characters. Although it's understandable that the actors aren't called upon to demonstrate professional musical skills, it feels weird to have them holding guitars that they never play. It's also mildly disappointing that this otherwise chatty play does not have its characters discussing musical influences and methods in any kind of detail.
If "Hired Gun" does not fully explore the musical material, it may be because it's so zestfully exploring the musical melodrama exploding like an angry guitar riff. This well-written play knows how to set up a confrontational situation that's destined to end up with a guitar being wielded as, er, a battle ax.
Dewitt lives in semi-retirement with a much younger wife, Sherri, who is vividly portrayed by Sarah Eberhardt. Sherri mostly lounges on the sofa, where she dispenses sassy commentary. She's borderline-rude, but there's no denying that most of her tart observations contain an alcoholic grain of truth.
Sharing this claustrophobic, windowless house is the aptly named Red (Mike Ware), who functions as Dewitt's personal assistant, longtime roadie and foul-mouthed friend. Such prejudice-infested redneck characters obviously exist in our imperfect world, but the scripting verges on being cartoonish here. It doesn't help that Ware's deep-fried southern accent sometimes seems to wander as far north as New England.
As for the title character, Jesse (Tucker Foltz) is a gifted young guitarist who idolizes Dewitt and initially welcomes this opportunity to work with him; however, he's an ambitious sideman looking to make a name for himself, and he also quickly surmises that he's ventured into a musically hostile environment. Foltz's ardent performance fortunately is not at the expense of bringing out the character's more subtle and conflicted traits.
By the time Jesse endures an all-night recording session, you'll worry whether he'll make it out of there with his integrity intact. As guitar gods go, Dewitt can be merciless.
The Theatrical Mining Company production of "Hired Gun" runs through July 29 at Load of Fun Theater, 120 W. North Avenue in Baltimore. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10. Go to http://www.brownpapertickets.com.