Like a back-roads Beckett, playwright Jon Klein has come up with two hobo-like characters who are on the road to nowhere in "T Bone N Weasel." Going by their nicknames and concealing their real names even from each other, T Bone and Weasel are a couple of ex-convicts trading comic, existential quips as they roam through a South Carolina landscape of used car lots, snack shacks and homeless shelters in a Center Stage production that does some roaming or its own.
Like a back-roads Beckett, playwright Jon Klein has come up with two hobo-like characters who are on the road to nowhere in "T Bone N Weasel." Going by their nicknames and concealing their real names even from each other, T Bone and Weasel are a couple of ex-convicts trading comic, existential quips as they roam through a South Carolina landscape of used car lots, snack shacks and homeless shelters in a Center Stage production that does some roaming of its own.
T Bone and Weasel give the English language a real working over -- "the store" comes out "da sto" -- and they sometimes give each other a rough working over as they ramble through scenes that function like abstracted vaudeville routines as much as an actual travelogue through the contemporary South.
Mr. Klein has set himself a tricky task here, because he's playing off a number of influences and issues: the Beckett-influenced connection between language and identity as articulated by inarticulate characters; the transfer of Beckett's all-voice, bare stage aesthetic to a recognizable Southern setting inhabited by flesh and blood characters; and a bluntly serious social examination of how T Bone, a black man, and Weasel, a white man, don't think much about their different skin color until society keeps pointing it out.
Whew! Sounds like the playwright has his work cut out for him, and sounds like the audience is in for an ordeal. Well, the good news is that while "T Bone N Weasel" is by turns too random and too obvious in its treatment, Mr. Klein has a real ear for profanely funny dialect. You don't mind going along for the ride, especially as the play heads into the gen-u-wine oddities of Southern life.
And it doesn't hurt that the two actors are already inhabiting their roles with disturbing conviction. Sprawled across the car seat that represents their entire stolen Buick in the sparely dressed set, Brian Tarantina's Weasel is a scrawny mess in his grungy T-shirt and jeans. Not to mention that his hair is too stringy for his head band to do much good. The inside of his head is even more distressing.
By contrast, his partner has both more brawn and more brains. Damien Leake's T Bone plans their criminal escapades and then can't quite believe all the ways Weasel finds to mess them up. What makes T Bone a pathetic figure is that for all his smarts, he's still doing some dumb stick 'em up stuff. What makes him a touching figure is that for all his swaggering confidence he finds the New South is much like the Old South when a rice grower who hires them turns out to be a throwback to plantation society: She calls him "boy."
There's a third player in "T Bone N Weasel," or should one say there are nine more characters briefly sliding through the action? Actor James Noah deserves battle pay for undergoing so many costume, accent and gender changes as he becomes characters including a cracker cop, a crazy bum, a plantation owner dolled up like Dame Edna, a doctor with political aspirations and a used car salesman.
As T Bone and Weasel humorously suffer through one picaresque misadventure after another, these other characters -- should one say caricatures? -- are the laugh-out-loud embodiments of Southern small-town life. Showcased in vignettes and then usually disappearing forever from the play, they're the briefly glimpsed human counterparts of the road sign-like placards that hover over the stage just long enough to let us know where T Bone and Weasel have driven to next.
These secondary characters and the play itself seemingly float between the real and the unreal. Although Mr. Klein and director Jackson Phippin can't always maintain that delicate balance and too often cruise along with a sort of shouted farce, set designer Neil Patel cleverly redesigns the world on their behalf. Architecturally, the back of the set resembles a domestic wall, complete with some projecting references to the antebellum South; however, this wall is completely painted over with a landscape at its base and a sky up top. Are we outside or inside? And is life for ex-convicts T Bone and Weasel any different outside than it was "inside"?
@'T Bone N Weasel'
Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.
When: Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7:30 p.m., with matinees on most Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m., and Wednesday, Dec. 9, at 1 p.m. A student matinee is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 3. Through Dec. 20.
Call: (410) 332-0033.