Omaha Community Playhouse has come up with a thoroughly audience-friendly production. Hands on a Hardbody reaches out and brings you up close and personal with people who might seem to be your neighbors. They represent Texans but, since there are Omahans within those simple clothes, you might even know them. Then too, the cast members mingle amid you as at a real event, where you sit on bleachers rather than in a theater. Some performers even hand out business cards identifying them as someone living far away west from the mid-West.
The setting is a showroom for a truck and car dealer, looking totally genuine, including having a an actual truck in the center. But then, what will transpire is derived from something actual itself, depicted in a 1997 documentary film. It concerns a contest in which locals compete to win a brand new pickup truck by keeping at least one hand each on the vehicle until only person outlasts the others. This happens over whatever days and hours it takes, with infrequent tiny time breaks at rare intervals. This dealer-generated publicity stunt was a regular feature for several years in Longview, Texas with 24 folks trying their hands at it each time.
This is clearly not an attempt to replicate the film. Course not. Especially since it comes filled with 16 country and western-like new songs. The Broadway version had a short run in 2013 and got some good press reviews. (“Daring…scrappy…sincere” wrote the New York Times’ Charles Isherwood.) He lauds its fundamental simplicity. Indeed, what happens doesn’t seem all that complicated.
Amanda Green and Trey Anastasio assembled the melodies and words. Doug Wright steered the journey of the show, writing the script. When Wright finally gets into gear in the second act, you’re likely to find the trip worth it. But it takes a while to reach its destination. The first part feels long on idling before things pick up speed. And the songs, pleasant enough, provide decent parts and service, but don’t sparkle and shine all that much. The 15 member cast always stays believable and genuine, singing well, moving capably. Yet many come across more generic than specific and these characters need greater depth than Wright provides them.
Since Wright is not reconstructing the movie, you’d think he would have put more complexity into the characters. Most of them seem no more than just plain nice. That makes them sympathetic but it doesn’t set up all that much tension. They mesh, they cooperate, more than they get into serious friction. Later, though, one character will be revealed has having serious psychological problems. But nothing truly threatening happens.
Wright eventually gets around to some good elements, such as having the local radio play-by-play announcer, who’s covering the event, trying to downplay negative comments in his interviews with every one. i.e the bad economy, the deteriorating neighborhood, or Wal-Mart ’s employment practices. Later, as well, Wright gets good mileage out of looking into the problems and vicissitudes of trying to sell cars and trucks in such a fractured economy. Plus there’s a song ironically dealing with how our culture keeps on becoming more alien and homogenized e.g. the truck isn’t even American. Racial stereotyping also gets a slam.
Among the performers, Jeffrey Pierce stands out strongly, portraying the most potentially dangerous participant, Benny Perkins. He has all the right attitudes, all the right moves. And Nik Whitcomb as the only African American, Ronald McCowan, gleams with charm. Moreover, in less prominent roles, Virginia Drew and Chris Ebke sing exceptionally well.
Director Hillary Adams has directed perceptively, providing subtle shading, such as having the contestants caress the truck frequently, rather than just placing indifferent fingers. And, when the lone survivor triumphs, you can see that having been so connected to the hardbody for so many days, it becomes almost impossible to physically let go. Like, welded to the thing.
FYI: Dallas-born playwright Doug Wright is best known for his Pulitzer Prize winner I Am My Own Wife, likewise based on a real story. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doug_Wright).Fort Worth guitarist, composer, and vocalist Trey Anastasio, way up front and center with the rock band Phish, wrote the songs with singer/actress Amanda Green who’s got quite a handful of stage credits as writer and performer. Background: she’s the daughter of lyricist and Leonard Bernstein-collaborator Adolph Green. (http://trey.com/) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amanda_Green).
You gotta hand it to ‘em; these folks do it just fine.
Hands on a Hardbody runs through March 22 at Howard Drew Theatre, Omaha Community Playhouse, 6915 Cass St. Thurs.–Sat.: 7:30 p.m., Sun.: 2 p.m. Tickets $20-$40. www.OmahaPlayhouse.org