Reviewed by Nancy Oliveri
Who doesn’t love a good Western? Who doesn’t love a gangster story? In Mr. Hart and Mr. Brown by Bruce Graham, you get both, but it ain’t Bonnie and Clyde.
Directed by Bill Lelbach, who also designed the simple, evocative, gravel-floored set, Mr. Hart and Mr. Brown is a compelling work that was premiered last year by the People’s Light and Theatre Company in Malvern, Pa.
In its second incarnation, nicely done by the Chenango River Theatre in Greene, you can expect some rootin’ and a tootin’, with a rumbling undercurrent of dusty noir. Don’t think too hard about why what you see happening is happening — just go with it.
With an all-male cast of four, including a narrator known only as Local Historian, well played by Michael Arcesi, the play uses some hokey contrivances to make its point. That said, it does not drag, and is punctuated by some very harrowing moments. If you startle easily, be prepared.
Set in Homer, Nebraska, and bouncing back and forth between the 1920s and the 1960s —where Arcesi’s Historian sets the stage for the action of the play, Mr. Hart and Mr. Brown explores themes of family loyalty, righteous indignation and the lengths some men will go to protect an identity that never really needed to be exposed in the first place.
I can’t say much more without spoilers, so will leave off with this thought: Although it is wonderful to have the benefit of Equity actors (two of whom are in this show), it doesn’t always mean the decision to cast them together as the colorful characters we are supposed to believe them to be will necessarily work, but for the most part it does.
A pretty thorough stream of ethnic-inspired epithets border a little on the gratuitous. Yeah, we get it. And the angrier the character in question gets, the louder and more strident the actor portraying him — Drew Kahl — becomes. I think the character, the hard-nosed lawman Richard “Two-Gun” Hart, would have benefited from some tempering between the low simmer and the boiling point to which he sometimes abruptly swaggers.
As the swanky interloper Al Brown, Andrew Criss builds the more insidious aspects of his character more deliberately, and he, ultimately, is the more discomfiting of the two.
I almost didn’t recognize Zachary Chastain, but he was excellent, as always, as the naively exuberant Ambrose Healey, a young journalist only seeking the truth. He plays terrified to the point that you are terrified for him.
Co-produced by Leah and Bill Gorman and pressconnects.com, the play will run just two more weekends, and it is selling out fast.
IF YOU GO: Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 19 at Chenango River Theatre, 99a State Highway 12, Greene. Call the box office at 656-8499. (Note: This Thursday, Oct. 9, is sold out.) A talkback with the actors and director is planned after this Friday’s performance (Oct. 10). For more information, visit www.chenangorivertheatre.org.