Georgia railroad on my mind

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The Spectrum

The American Repertory Theater's production of Red Clay last Friday at the Cabaret Theatre on Main Street was modest yet entertaining, showing once again that there is great potential in local theater.
Playwright Matthew LaChiusa knows what he's doing. His play, which could be described as a mix between Tennessee Williams and the TV show Dallas, has witty dialogue, colorful characters and a decent plot.
Welcome to the world of Southern Comfort. In 1982 Georgia, Danny Gibbons (John Kaczorowski), the young, insecure owner of Red Clay Railroads, and his right-hand man, William Kincaid (Peter Jaskowiak), are planning to make the railroad public. They seek the help of a New York investment firm that sends representative – and the boss's daughter – Ruby Lucas (Tara Kaczorowski) to evaluate the railroad.
Everything seems fine on the surface, but of course, nothing is. The sinister Kincaid is secretly planning a scheme that would make him rich and leave Gibbons hanging. Aided by a disgusting private eye, Joe Hamilton (Christopher Standard), Kincaid plans to take over one of the most successful railroads in Atlanta by any means necessary.
So this is how corporate takeovers are done in the South: through a lot of drinking, smoking, scheming and screwing. It's not much different than in the North, except that the South certainly has a better sense of humor about it.
The play is pleasurable to watch. If you're into Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neil, Tony Gilroy, alcohol, or Southern accents, then you're in for a treat.
However, Red Clay brings nothing new to the table. The play isn't a soap opera, but it does venture into the melodramatic. The play's realism is sometimes compromised by its old-fashioned need for dramatic flair. The characters don't develop much, and the plot has been seen many times before.
LaChiusa's portrayal of the South is considerably fair. It's easy and quite typical for Northerners to poke fun at the South, yet LaChiusa has none of that. He has a great understanding of Southern culture – its mannerisms, sense of history and pride, as well as its considerable dedication to humor.
There is, of course, the tackiness, shown most clearly by Kincaid's bimbo secretary Clara Hood (Andrea Andolina) and Gibbons's friend Billy Ray Gunn (Patrick Cameron). Then there are the scenes set in a local bar, which is more of a product of the '70s and '80s than of Robert E. Lee.
The play shows great attention to detail. Director Drew McCabe does what he can to establish an accurate milieu. The clothes, the ample liquor, the Confederate flags, the slicked-back hair and even the portraits of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan give the impression that we are in post-Watergate southern America.
LaChiusa's dialogue is often witty and driven. It propels the action forward and gives the characters just enough room to breathe. Dialogue often defines theater and the play is good enough to make it enjoyable.
What Red Clay has in style, though, is hindered somewhat in substance. The plot includes the obvious turns: Gibbons and Lucas having an affair, Kincaid fooling every businessman he sees, Hamilton and Kincaid loading their bodies with liquor, and a takeover scheme that is easily understood. Crooked corporate dealings are nothing new, especially nowadays, so it would have been nice to see the play do something more with it, considering it seems to set out for something higher.
Indeed, there are other parts of the play that badly want to be noticed. There's a sing-off in Act II that's funny, but nonetheless uncomfortable to watch. Gibbons and Lucas's relationship – in fact, Lucas's character in general – is very prominent, yet is too robotic to be realistic. And Act III spirals so out of control that it's like watching someone ride an automated bull.
Red Clay is still a fine work nonetheless. It's never boring and has a style of its own that engages the audience. The play is simply a dramatic shot wrapped in a vernacular blanket.
The play also shows that Buffalo's theater life has a lot of energy. LaChiusa's pen and McCabe's direction worked very well together. Overall, Red Clay is an exercise in dramatic turnarounds and Southern style, and it is done well – that is to say, Buffalo style.
The play can be seen in The Cabaret Theater at 672 Main Street through this Saturday.

E-mail: arts@ubspectrum.com