Performing Arts

MET’s ‘The Tennessee Playboy’ fails to capture theatergoers’ hearts

“The Tennessee Playboy” co-stars (from left) Nicole Marie Green, Tim Ahlenius and Tony Beasley. The production continues through April 15.
“The Tennessee Playboy” co-stars (from left) Nicole Marie Green, Tim Ahlenius and Tony Beasley. The production continues through April 15. Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre

Irish playwright J.M. Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World” is widely regarded as one of the best theater pieces in the English language.

No one is likely to say that about “The Tennessee Playboy,” Preston Lane’s redneck Americanization of Synge’s story.

Set in a run-down rural diner in the mid-1970s (a portrait of Richard Nixon still hangs on the restroom wall over the commode), “Tennessee Playboy” gives us a pack of backwoods idiots who are gullible enough to think that a scrawny, fearful drifter is actually a lady-killing man of action.

A disheveled and timorous Chuck (Connor Eastman) shows up late one night after having been on the run for a week. He tells a tale of whopping his abusive father in the head with a frying pan, killing the old goat.

The lazy, boozy proprietor of the diner (Tim Ahlenius) is impressed enough to offer the fugitive a job.

His cook/waitress/toilet-scrubbing daughter Pearlene (Casey Jane) is desperate enough for a bit of excitement that she builds Chuck up as some kind of Superman. Next to her longtime beau, the dweeby/doltish Stanley (R.H. Wilhoit), Chuck is a paragon of male pulchritude.

After a while, Chuck starts to believe it himself, especially after local women (Deanne Mazdra, Chelcie Abercrombie) begin throwing themselves at him. Most aggressive is the Widow Quince (Nicole Marie Green), a predatory vamp with a history of dead husbands, a beehive ‘do that should be topped by a flashing red light (as a warning to aircraft), and a case of the hots for the new stud in town.

Also on hand is the local preacher (Tony Beasley), an arm-flapping fellow who has more in common with Little Richard than Billy Graham.

A last-act addition is Chuck’s father (Chuck Pulliam), bloodied but still alive, who shows up to exact revenge on his thankless offspring.

Under the direction of Karen Paisley and Elizabeth Bettendorf Bowman, the players knock themselves out working the material.

But here’s the deal: They’re all cartoons, written broadly and played that way. Only Jane’s Pearlene shows flashes of an inner life of yearning.

The result is that “The Tennessee Playboy” feels like a comedy show sketch that doesn’t know when to end.

This might be tolerable if Lane had a better ear for dialogue. I mean, we’re talking about backwoods morons here … the show should be filled with blisteringly funny lines. But it’s all terribly predictable, even repetitive. Watching it I kept wishing that Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard, the writers of the wonderful “Tuna, Texas” series, had taken a shot at this material.

Paisley’s set evokes the tackiness of a rural eatery on its last legs and a character in its own right is the diner’s decrepit jukebox, stocked with country hits whose play numbers the locals know by heart.

There’s a lovely moment in Act 1 when Pearline plugs a quarter in the juke to play John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” and does a clumsily sincere dance of seduction for the clueless Chuck. It’s a revealing, even heartfelt moment, in a play that mostly gets by on exaggerated exteriors.

Read freelancer Robert W. Butler's movie reviews at ButlersCinemaScene.com.

On stage

“Tennessee Playboy” continues through April 15 at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 3614 Main St. $15-$49. For more information, call 816-569-3226 or go to METKC.org.

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