by SOPHIE KERMAN
There is a thin line between satire and mockery, and when it comes to racial or regional stereotypes, that line can get uncomfortably thin. T Bone N Weasel, an “underdog comedy” that tries to tackle issues such as racism and social class through the voyage of two ex-cons in South Carolina, steps a little too far into the realm of caricature for its social concerns to have much of an impact. Both thematically ambitious and frustratingly superficial, T Bone N Weasel‘s comedy spends too much time enacting stereotypes and not enough time satirizing them.
Written in 1986 for Midwest Playlabs by Jon Klein, the play feels only mildly dated in its revival by Theatre Pro Rata. As parolees T Bone (Theo Langason) and Weasel (Mark Benzel) try to make a living after their release from jail, their struggles take on the familiar pace of a buddy road-trip comedy. Brushes with a multitude of characters – all played with gusto by Ben Tallen – alternately reinforce the pair’s unlikely friendship and drive wedges of mistrust between them.
As a play about friendship, T Bone N Weasel is perfectly inoffensive. Langason in particular shows great acting potential as T Bone, whose attachment to Weasel is made all the more poignant by T Bone’s clear reluctance to be anything other than a lone wolf; Benzel plays his role with the scattered energy and naive vacancy of a character who has never been the brightest crayon in the box. But both the playwright and director Amber Bjork have shied away from the current of violence that runs under both the men’s friendship and their interactions along the road. For instance, although the characters carry a gun – and wield it at several moments in the play – there is never even a second’s anxiety that someone might actually get killed on stage.
It is the lack of anxiety that weakens the play’s potential for social commentary. Satire is most powerful when it threatens our comfort with the status quo, but the caricatured characters that T Bone and Weasel encounter make the laughs just too easy. The hyper-sexualized Verna Mae Beaufort – the only woman we see portrayed – uses the parolees’ labor in disturbing ways that are too quickly brushed aside, while Doc Tatum is the archetypal sleazy politician, with none of the internal contradiction that makes actual sleazy politicians so interesting. Tallen plays these roles to their utmost absurdity, as he should – the flaw is not in his acting but in writing of such two-dimensional characters.
Theatre Pro Rata attracts talented individuals, from the actors to the technical crew. (Zach Morgan‘s set and Lydia Bolder‘s props design show a clever attention to space and detail.) But the company’s choice of play squanders a lot of potential, both from an artistic and a political point of view. As T Bone and Weasel navigate the world outside prison, their lives are too much like a sitcom to give the play enough comic bite.
T Bone N Weasel by Jon Klein. Presented by Theatre Pro Rata, March 3-18, 2012, at The Gremlin Theatre, 2400 University Ave, St. Paul, MN 55114. Information: (612) 874-9321 or firstname.lastname@example.org