A rundown motel on Route 66 in Tucumcari, New Mexico was the last thing Lillian expected as a honeymoon present, but that’s precisely what the young newlywed finds herself the co-proprietor of in Riley Steiner’s old-fashioned romantic drama Tucumcari, now playing at Beverly Hills’ Theatre 40.

Lillian expected better from ranch hand Lyle, her childhood friend, when he proposed marriage to her. She expected “a taste of freedom” and a chance to see “a scrap of the world,” not this nothing tourist court “forty miles from the nearest nowhere.” But Lyle won the decrepit motel in a poker game, and he eagerly informs his bride that “the time to build something is while we’re young.” As for Lillian’s protestations that she ought to have been consulted before a deal was made, Lyle minces no words in informing her that “it’s a man’s job to make these decisions.”

Were the year 2011, Lillian might well have motive and grounds for divorce, but we’re in 1928 New Mexico, decades before the women’s lib movement, and so Lillian decides to make the best of a far from ideal situation. If she’s going to be running a tourist court in Tucumcari, it’s going to be the best tourist court around, and Lyle is going to build her a porch out back where the two of them can have a little privacy from time to time.

Lyle has only just starting working on the porch when a handsome, bearded stranger named Cade arrives, temporarily stranded on his way to San Francisco, his truck having run out of gas. Cade takes one look at the porch Lyle has begun to build and declares it unfit for anything other than standing or waving goodbye. A porch should be for sitting, and sleeping, and dancing, Cade insists, and before you know it, the stranger and the motel owner are bonding over one of Lillian’s home-cooked meals and Cade has decided to stick around and help build the dream porch he has described.

Playwright Steiner’s setup is an enticing one, the thought of Lillian torn between her handsome but stable (i.e. boring) husband and their hot, sexy (i.e. not boring) house guest conjuring up images of a steamy love affair burning up the sheets behind Lyle’s unsuspecting back.

It doesn’t happen that way, and those expecting steam will have to adjust their expectations considerably. Tucumcari, despite its perfect-for-film-noir setup, plays it rather a bit safer than this reviewer was hoping for. Flashbacks (or are they dream sequences?) suggest an attraction between Lillian and Cade, but virtually nothing comes from it in their day-to-day dealings. There are no scenes of Lillian begging Cade to take her away, or of Cade using his powers of manly persuasion on Lillian. When Lyle tells Cade, “I know that you feel something for my wife,” it comes as almost a surprise, since at the very most, there have been no more than looks exchanged between Lillian and the man who shares her dreams of adventure.

If Steiner’s script ends up tamer than hoped for, it benefits greatly from Doug Traer’s capable direction and from its attractive, talented, and promising trio of young stars—Ciera Parrack as Lillian, Logan Fahey as Lyle, and Robert W. Evans as Cade. The charismatic L.A. newcomers give natural, unforced performances that go a long way towards making the threesome hold our attention even without the drama that an illicit affair would ignite.

Scenic designer Jeff G. Rack’s set is one of his best, allowing us to see both inside and outside Lillian and Lyle’s apartment while also giving us a real sense of the surrounding Southwest desert. Steiner’s script requires considerable fiddling with the set (adding and removing props, building the porch, etc.), necessitating long blackouts which, fortunately, are filled by the terrific onstage vocalizing and guitar and banjo picking of Aric Leavitt, Rachel Kiser, and Pat Whiteman Astor, who pop up like magic from behind Lillian and Lyle’s living-room wall between scenes. Patsy Montana’s “I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart” and “You Are My Sunshine” are but two of the songs which add to Tucumcari’s country feel. Dan Reed’s lighting design is an effective one, and despite a few sound cues coming from the wrong part of the stage, so too is Bill Froggatt’s sound design. There’s a dust storm sequence that is a particularly striking design creation. Carla Lubow has choreographed a few charming dance sequences, including a country waltz and a ten-step, and Norma Maldonado’s Spanish dialect coaching yields excellent results when needed.

Surprisingly, given Theatre 40’s history of perfectly costumed period productions, the dresses which costume designer Suzanne Scott has created for Parrack seem out of place and time for the late 1920s setting, though the men’s garb works better given the more or less timeless look of farmer/cowpoke wear. Further detracting from a sense of the play’s late ‘20s timeframe are Parrack’s contemporary long locks and Evans’ neatly trimmed beard, fashionable in 2011 but virtually unheard of in that era of bobbed hair for women and minimal if no facial hair for men.

Daniel Leslie supplies some radio voices, while David Hunt Stafford serves as producer, Julie Sanford as associate producer, and Julie Simpson as stage manager.

If nothing else, Tucumcari serves as an introduction to three talented, camera-friendly additions to L.A.’s talent pool. The cast’s youth may also serve to attract a welcome under-65 crowd to Theatre 40, while the play’s early 20th Century setting will resonate with the company’s older subscriber base. A stay at Lillian and Lyle’s travel court in Tucumcari ends up a pleasant one, if not quite the sizzler it might have been.

Note: The equally attractive alternate cast (Elizabeth Gwynne Wilson, Kelly Misek, and John Ruby) will be playing Lillian, Lyle, and Cade on February 16 and 24.

Theatre 40, 241 S. Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills.
–Steven Stanley
February 2, 2011
Photos: Ed Krieger

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