The Essential Straight & Narrow

by Jona Tarlin · June 1, 2014

Playwrights on New Plays #82 Jona Tarlin comments on The Essential Straight & Narrow at New OhioTheatre

A seedy motel room. A phone call. A woman in a big hat.

She’s making the same call over and over.

She’s practicing.

But the room is lit by fluorescence and the motel is surrounded by grey concrete.

A folding chair. Another telephone. This one a payphone on the wall.

Where are we really?

The Mad Ones newest piece, The Essential Straight & Narrow plays like an LP of a Southern folk band stuck in the desert. It’s a memory play, but these memories are rendered with such detail that the timeline flattens out, and the now (still, sartorially the 70’s) becomes the fuzzy one.

Jo (Stephanie Wright Thompson), the woman on the phone, is an actress now; rehearsing her lines for an unnamed cop show. Before she was a singer in a band that found itself stranded in a New Mexico motel (Laura Jellinek is just as detailed in her set as the cast is) and trying to make the best of their situation. They’re struggling to come together for a new tour with an old band member, Graham (Joe Curnutte), who has been absent recently for unspecified reasons.

While stationed there Jo and the Band are visited by Debbie Savors (Marc Bovino), a long time resident of the motel. That she is played by a man in drag is never remarked on in the course of the play and Bovino does such a wonderful job with her character that I not sure if she is supposed to be transgender or if simply that Bovino was the best fit for that role.

Very little in the play is openly remarked on, instead bits of information are like breadcrumbs guiding the way. You lean in real close, and really listen. A keenly observed action or a phrase and suddenly the story starts to take shape.

This play reminded me of Robert Altman’s 3 Women. Maybe it’s the desert setting (felt deeply in the play even though we never see a speck of sand). Maybe it’s the dialogue, lean and efficient. Maybe it’s that they both feel like a work of extreme confidence, in this instance the sure hand of the director Lila Neugebauer (who I’m sure would be quick to credit the actors for they’re fantastic work).

If this were a record review I’d start citing individual tracks, discussing their individual merits and how they add up to the whole. So I’ll say this, there are some definite stand out tracks, with the scene where they suss out a new arrangement for a song they’re working on as the first single. Other highlights include “$10,000 Pyramid” and “the Halloween party”, the big rocker that closes the album.

It is only as the record hits its locked grooves that it coalesces. The needle sliding back and forth, the company taking their bows, the walk out the theater and then the conversation begins, Did you think this too? Yeah, I picked up on that! Good, I’m glad I wasn’t the only one. I have found myself going back to the motel often, thinking on moments and pieces of the play. Letting it sink in fully.

With The Essential Straight & Narrow they have built a beautiful dollhouse of a play. It is Immersive and detailed in miniature, but abstract when taken as a whole.

It’s billed as a play, I’ve called it an LP, but it’s also a dance. Every moment choreographed and then shrugged off, spontaneous and yet precise. A wonderful night at the theater.





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