A TUMBLEWEED IN COWTOWN
The Armadillo Theatre
at the Chicago Cooperative Stage
In another time, in another place, A Tumbleweed in Cowtown would have made a good episode on Love American Style. The story is simply a variation on a stock boy-meets-girl story: nerdy lonely guy is set up by swinging best friend on a blind date with knockout single gal. In A Tumbleweed in Cowtown, the lonely guy is Phil Horton (played with considerable comic ability by Charles Spencer), a man who hasn’t touched a woman since his girlfriend Debbie moved out several years before. And the swinging best friend is Jack (Benjamin Werling), who sets Phil up on a blind date with Monica, a friend of his girlfriend Brenda. Having no confidence that Phil can break his long dry spell all by himself, Jack insists they go on a double date, so he can orchestrate Phil’s seduction of Monica.
Before the evening begins, Jack drops by to give Phil the usual locker-room advice about how to get “laid by a modern girl nowadays.” This lecture goes on and on; just when you think the play is about to get going again, Jack unveils his “five commandments” of dealing with women. “Five commandments,” Phil guffaws, “what did you do, drop one of the tablets?” (Canned laughter.) These “Commandments” turn an otherwise uninteresting scene into an offensive one. Commandment one: “Thou shalt consider women’s lib bullshit.” Commandment two: “Thou shalt be the boss.” Commandment three: “Thou shalt not be subservient; women want a lover not a waiter.” You get the idea. Jack is an asshole pig, in the great sit-com tradition of Ralph “A man’s home is his castle” Cramden. Naturally, Jack is no more capable of following his own advice than Ralphie-boy is. Soon we’ll see who’s the real “boss” in Jack’s relationship.
Jack no sooner finishes giving his long-winded, wrongheaded advice than the doorbell rings–“At last,” my companion whispered to me–and the women arrive. Monica (Terri Enders) turns out to be, what else, pretty, perky, and a little shy–the perfect woman for Phil. Brenda (Susan Bittles), on the other hand, a tall, assertive cowgirl, is hardly the sort to let Jack follow his own commandments. The rest of the story unfolds with excruciating slowness–just the way you’d expect it to. Phil and Monica are well on their way to falling in love when Jack fakes a bad back and insists that Brenda help him into the bedroom, thus leaving Phil and Monica all alone. Left on their own they fall into a shy, nervous silence. Phil makes a few half-hearted attempts to follow Jack’s advice, seriously considers making a move on Monica on the couch, and discovers, to his chagrin, that he’s just not that kind of a guy. In the most comic and touching ten minutes of the play Phil learns that eternal moral of all Love American Style episodes: be yourself and you’ll get to go all the way . . . eventually.
Unfortunately, this undramatic play never, for a moment, digresses from a standard, formulaic plot. Oh, for a few brief seconds in the first act it looked like maybe, just maybe, Jack, the ladies’ man, would make a pass at Monica when she, inexplicably, accompanies him to the liquor store (is she more attracted to Jack than Phil?). But such a plot development would be too much to hope for.
Nor does the story’s being set in Fort Worth do anything to spice up the essentially generic nature of this bit of TV on the stage. Most of the regional touches in the play, the Texas flag along the back wall, the long-neck bottles of Lone Star beer, the obligatory jokes about cowboys (“What’s the difference between a redneck and a cowboy?” “Not much”) are the sort of stock details copywriters and creative directors routinely put in TV commercials to give them local color.
The show’s not awful, just very, very predictable. It starts off as a shy guy’s fantasy, and that’s how it ends–with a good-night kiss and the sweet promise of sex.