Victory Gardens

A little white hick and his big black buddy make their way through Dixie, encountering a series of crooks and con men on both sides of the law while combating the evils of corruption and racism. That’s a capsule description of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, of course; it also sums up Jon Klein’s play T Bone n Weasel, having its Chicago premiere at Victory Gardens under the direction of Dennis Zacek.

Zacek, a promotional newsletter notes, “has been interested in producing the play for several years,” and the advance planning shows. His staging of the comedy is slick, buoyant, and sharply played by its three-man cast: Johnny Lee Davenport and Eddie Jemison as the title characters, and quick-change artist Jamie Baron as the various lowlifes the heroes meet on their journey. But Zacek’s successful production of this lightweight, superficial play is definitely a victory of style over substance.

T Bone and Weasel are a pair of jailbirds headed down the back roads of South Carolina (not to mention the proverbial highway of life) in a succession of stolen cars. Weasel, the little white guy, is illiterate, idealistic, and gullible; T Bone, the tall, well-built black guy, is somewhat better educated and a whole lot wiser and more cynical. Weasel wants to find a straight job; T Bone, all too familiar with the scraps historically tossed his and his people’s way, prefers to keep his distance from society and plans to float through a career of petty crime. Each man resolves to try living by the other’s creed; neither pans out.

The main reason for their string of failures is that, whether operating within or outside the law, both T Bone and Weasel are utterly inept and unlucky. In their first attempt at a holdup, they are swindled by the convenience store owner they try to rob. Seeking a fan belt for their stolen Buick, they end up selling the car to a sneering, surly auto dealer; later, they are robbed of the cash at gunpoint–with their own gun. A low-paying “handyman” job turns into a bizarre parody of antebellum slavery, with T Bone relegated to field hand while Weasel is impressed into “house slave” stud service by the lustful lady of the house. Another laborer’s job is lost on account of T Bone’s race; and an apparent act of charity–a campaigning politician offers them food and housing–proves to be an exploitive sham.

And so it goes, in a series of vignettes whose seriocomic potential is squandered by the playwright in favor of smug, easy laughs. T Bone n Weasel has a terminal case of the cutes; the symptoms are the simpleminded sight gags (Weasel trying to put on his pants and putting on his shirt instead–ha, ha), cheap puns (attending an “antinuke” rally, Weasel thinks it’s a protest against Vietnamese boat people–“gook” instead of “nuke,” get it?), cornpone-corny malapropisms (“downright condensatin’,” says T Bone as he complains of being condescended to), and over-obvious Thematic Statements. (“All I got is a card,” says Weasel when asked for his identification. “Social Security.” Comes the reply: “Ain’t no such thing.”)

Of course, the thing about obvious sitcom humor is that it pays off–if not dramatically, then at least for the playwright. Pandering to the numbing simplemindedness bred in audiences through two generations of televised triviality, Jon Klein has created a very successful little property indeed. T Bone n Weasel, Victory Gardens’ promotional literature claims, has been produced at more than 20 theaters nationwide and is being turned into a movie for cable TV, which is just where it belongs.

Meanwhile, at Victory Gardens, Zacek finds plenty of ways to jazz up the banal script while keeping his cast from going too far with the aw-shucks stereotypes. As little Weasel, a role with very strong echoes of the hillbilly caricature that comedian Howard Morris used to play on TV shows of the 1950s and ’60s, Eddie Jemison is properly ingratiating and irritating; Johnny Lee Davenport, flashing a mouthful of gleaming gold teeth, effectively walks the fine line between T Bone’s competing attitudes of cynicism and hopefulness. Jamie Baron, a small and athletic performer noted for his multiple roles in previous Practical Theatre and Remains shows, plays down his usual manic intensity in various caricatures linked by a common spiritual meanness (including, predictably for Baron, a simpering, Church Lady-style drag turn). Under Zacek’s direction, these three very able actors almost succeed in hiding the play’s shallowness through an abundance of physically inventive stage tricks, including funny entrances and exits through trapdoors and drainpipes and deft pantomime car driving, bus riding, and so on. Baron also draws laughs with his by now well-honed mastery of costume gags, including extra-high shoe lifts for his impersonation of a tall policeman.

James Dardenne’s set, a sleek series of levels and steps, encourages the performers’ playfulness; and Galen G. Ramsey’s original musical sound track summons up the right mood of corn-fried comedy. “Well,” it seems to say during each between-scene blackout, ” NOW what? We’ll be right back–after this brief message.” But viewers looking for meat will find this T Bone pretty slim pickings.

The first I heard of David Perkins was when I reviewed his staging of August Strindberg’s Easter for Blind Parrot Productions, a small and creative off-Loop, non-Equity company. It was a telling introduction to Perkins’s work–a rare hopeful play by a playwright noted for bitterness. In that and later directorial efforts–most notably in the extraordinary Oedipus Requiem of 1989, which he adapted from Sophocles–Perkins revealed unusual sensitivity and a commitment to art’s redemptive capacities.

Perkins, formerly coartistic director of Blind Parrot, died September 16 at the age of 35. His death was a shock to many. According to a Blind Parrot member, it was only in early September that he formally acknowledged that he had AIDS. His many friends will miss him; so will those who, though they knew him only casually, valued his dedication to theater as a place not for personality aggrandizement but for a shared quest for emotional, intellectual, and spiritual enrichment. A service in Perkins’s honor will be held Monday, October 1, at 7 PM at Blind Parrot, 1121 N. Ashland; for more information, call 227-5999.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.