Jeff Daniels goes west
by Sally Mitani
Jeff Daniels, that restless playwriting mill, keeps shoving the raw grist of Americana into the hopper and spitting out scripts. His most sustained look at American life and myth is the Escanaba soon-to-be-trilogy of North Woods tall tales, but he's written about a dozen plays in all, including Across the Way, Guest Artist, and going way back to the early days of the Purple Rose Theatre, The Tropical Pickle and Shoe Man. In Panhandle Slim & The Oklahoma Kid, which runs through Saturday, August 30, he's tackled the western - not the edgy, self-consciously cool western, like No Country for Old Men, but a more romantic and old-fashioned version that tries to find some meaning in our exits and entrances.
As the play opens, in a golden desert landscape that pours from a golden picture frame, a heartless desperado, Panhandle Slim (Tom Whalen), is dragged onstage and left to die, blood spilling from his guts. And riding in hot on his heels is the Oklahoma Kid (John Seibert), a cross between Gene Autry and Oscar Wilde: the guy who just doesn't see the point of living unless he's running his mouth. He's got a guitar (which is necessary because he's going to be singing a half dozen songs written by Daniels), he's a philosopher, he's a cornpone humorist, he's a gadfly, he's a wit. And in this particular situation, where the one thing a cowboy wants to do is die quietly with some dignity, he's unwanted. (In terms of the actual plot, he also may not be real but rather a hallucination from Slim's dying brain.)
This is not Daniels's best play, nor the best produced. It's all about the words, but lines that sound as if they have some heft don't bear up well on closer examination - they have a funny cadence, or aren't actually that witty. The songs are simple and harmless but don't have the ancient cowboy cult burnish of a lot
of others within easy reach: "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie" comes to mind. Most of all, the love story, which is told in flashbacks, is not only pretty thin but also tilting in sympathy to Panhandle Slim, who is - despite the charm of Whalen himself - a dirtbag. Some disconcerting direction, like an actor pointing at a sunset somewhere over the audience's heads while a shimmering violet and orange light show takes place on the stage behind him, and an entirely undeveloped female role don't help matters.
Daniels fans will love it anyway for its broad humor. And everyone will appreciate that the two principal roles are marvelously cast. Tom Whalen plays against type as a heartless outlaw. There's a kind of wistful sweetness to him, and he's got a lovely baritone (he periodically rouses himself from his job of dying to join in a chorus or two). Seibert, fluid and light on his feet, switches effortlessly between song, joke, and soliloquy, and does an awesome fake-horse-riding pantomime.
[Review published August 2008]