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When You Comin Back, Red Ryder?

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Some cheap tricks for getting an audience's attention: Have a phone ring onstage. The sound of a ringing telephone seems to stimulate the release of adrenaline, causing anxiety and tension. Depict sexual activity of any sort, or show a little nudity. This stimulates other hormones that contribute to full alertness. Place a psychopath in a locked room with a few defenseless people. The prospect of murder or mayhem awakens the survival instinct, which supersedes all others.

The phone does not ring in When You Comin Back, Red Ryder? The cord is cut early in the play. But Mark Medoff, the author of this trite little thriller, uses the other tricks shamelessly. A waitress at a dingy diner in a sleepy little New Mexican town is held hostage, along with three customers and the night cook, by a deranged punk armed with a revolver and his sarcastic wit. The punk eventually shoots one of them and then spends much of the second act forcing sex on the two women. As an added attraction he pulls the sweater of one of them up over her head, exposing her torso, and threatens to strip her.

What's most annoying about these cheap, manipulative tricks is that they work. Red Ryder arouses so much tension and holds the audience's attention so tightly that the play remains gripping--even in a production as feeble as the one currently at the Live Theatre. (Next Theatre in Evanston exploded onto the off-Loop scene seven years ago with a terrific production. Not surprisingly, those who saw it tend to remember it vividly.)

The violence and threatened violence are made even more shocking by the lazy pace of the opening scene. The waitress, Angel, arrives a few minutes late on a Sunday morning and is berated by the night cook, Stephen "Red" Ryder, a skinny boy with an Elvis hairdo and "Born Dead" tattooed on his arm. Lyle, the elderly man who runs the service station across the road, comes in for breakfast, and is followed by two travelers--a prim concert violinist and her condescending husband, who wants to introduce her to the glories of diner cuisine.

There's actually quite a bit going on among the characters in this sleepy scene, but you must divine that from the dialogue alone--the performances are so shallow they never even hint at anything beneath the surface. Angel (Margaret MacLeod) apparently has a crush on Stephen (Matthew Wuertz), who wants nothing more out of life than a red Corvette and an apartment of his own--in another town. Lyle (Reid Ostrowski), who walks with a limp because of a stroke, is too shy to reveal his affection for Angel, who sometimes goes over to his place to watch TV with him. The husband (Rick O'Connell) is a pompous oaf whose manhood is being questioned by his smart, independent wife (Diane Ponti Wright) who seems far more attached to her $11,000 violin than she is to him.

Because you can only deduce these tensions from the badly delivered lines, the play remains tiresome until the arrival of Teddy and his girlfriend Cheryl, who is clad only in a bikini and an open man's shirt. As Teddy, Mark Salehar radiates menace. Although he keeps a bright grin on his face and chats amiably with everyone, he is obviously aggressive. He adopts a phony southern accent meant to mock the locals, and keeps picking on Stephen, as though trying to start a fight. "My, my, but I like your hairstyle," Teddy tells Stephen. "I'll bet that look'll be back before ya know it. Girls'll be climbin' all over ya."

Of course Teddy is bound to be an interesting character since he benefits from all the tricks that Medoff has used to hold the audience's attention. It's Teddy who packs the gun, pushes people around, and gropes the women. His function is to generate tension, and Salehar's performance at least accomplishes that--which makes him a standout in this cast.

The poor quality of the acting is not what bogs this production down, however: it's the direction. A.C. Thomas, who is also the artistic director of Live Theatre, has staged this show with very little ingenuity and no apparent understanding of the characters. There are irritating little things: Why is a near murder staged so that half the audience can't see it? Why does the waitress leave the coffeepot on the counter instead of putting it on a hot plate? And speaking of the waitress, who is supposed to weigh 250 pounds, why does her fat suit have to make her look like the Michelin tire man?

These tittle things are annoying, but the big things sink this production. There is no subtext, for instance. Even inexperienced actors are capable of subtlety and nuance when coached by a perceptive director, but Thomas ignores the undercurrents. The violinist seems to find her husband perfectly acceptable, even though her dialogue eventually reveals her contempt for him. The relationship between Angel and Stephen remains totally ambiguous. Teddy's girlfriend seems disconnected from the action; when he finally shoots someone, she continues to flip through her magazine, as though he shot people every day. Then, moments later, the script orders her to say, "I'm scared." Sure she is.

But the sex and violence pull the audience along. The staging may be careless, but who's going to notice when there are gunshots and the threat of rape? Like so many TV shows, Red Ryder reaches out to the hormones, not to the head. Especially this production.

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