Most of the action in "Princes of Waco," the mostly insufferable new show at the Signal Ensemble Theatre, is set in one of those just-in-the-theater bars where whiskey, straight up, is the only approved beverage, where lines like "I was born with a bottle in my hand" flow like water, and where the tough-as-nails, dry-as-dust barkeep keeps disappearing into the back whenever the dramaturgy requires her absence, leaving her precious hooch out front as if she were a bored attendant with a self-service gas pump. I almost leaned over and helped myself. Might have improved the night.
The dialogue in Robert Askins' thudding drama is so overwrought, his characters seem to occupy a landscape impermeable to modern life and popular culture. The play is, in essence, a battle for the body and soul of an initially innocent young Waco woman (played by Carolyn Braver), raged between a sleazy older guy (played by Joseph Stearns) and a guy her own age (played by Rob Fenton). Both these gentlemen spend some stage time as petty criminals — the green younger ends up being tutored by the messed-up older and then comes back to get his mentor after the middle-aged fellow acquires the girl and tries to go straight and domestic.
It's one thing to pull off a metaphoric, mythic linguistic landscape if one is a writer of great skill and, preferably, some leavening humor. But this play isn't even remotely subtle. We learn that in Waco, "you're either a bad man or Jesus." Characters love to disclose that "all they got is an ache" and, in one scene, the young woman insists she's about to leave the joint, only to be told, portentously, "if you were leavin', you'd be gone."
Director Bries Vannon's production is sincerely meant and all four of the actors (Meredith Bell Alvarez is the bartender) have their moments. The two most successful performances are from Fenton, who has a certain handsome charm and, especially, from Braver, a young, new-to-Chicago actress with a great deal of sensuality, spunk and promise. But you don't ever believe the quartet is in the same world: Stearns' performance, for example, is far more amplified than that of his cast mates, who approach the text in mostly understated fashion — thick Texan accents notwithstanding. Given all the Lone Star red meat in the text, you see the merits of the latter approach, but, alas, it has the effect of killing a lot of the pace in a production with too much dead air. The princes in "Princes of Waco" drawl around their scrub kingdom so sl-ow-ly, it's about all you can do to not steal a truck from the street outside, hot-wire the darn thing and drive it through all the pauses.
When: Through Sept. 22
Where: Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Tickets: $20 at 773-698-7389 or signalensemble.com