When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?, Mark Medoff’s forgotten off-Broadway sensation from 1973, is almost too perfect a choice for revival by Retro Productions. No matter what flaws the production contains, the play is a godsend to New York theater and a crucial play for any American youth to revisit.
With sets, costumes, and props that invoke Easy Rider, Foster’s Diner in southern New Mexico seems like exactly the kind of place where rednecks who would eventually murder Jack Nicholson bullied and harassed Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. As the drug-smuggling, long-haired war veteran with a hippie teenager in tow, Christopher Patrick Mullen’s Teddy is a spitting image of Peter Fonda’s iconic character.
But here, rather than aggravating everyone around him merely by being there, Teddy takes it on himself to aggravate those around him. When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? is set at the tail end of the 1960s, when the Easy Rider myth was already losing steam before the film was even released. The peace and love of the hippies had already turned to violence, and with the rise of the Weather Underground and the return of embittered Vietnam vets, it would only get worse.
In Medoff’s vision, Teddy was engaging in the Easy Rider’s revenge, and ends up looking like what Jimmy Porter would have looked like if his point had already been made—and his battle already lost. Teddy is not so much a rebel as he is a profound jerk, one whose violent streak bears enough of a resemblance to a terrorist that you can understand what the McCain/Palin campaign was trying to exploit with Bill Ayers.
For the present day, the key element of Medoff’s script is the presence of the titular character (Stephen Ryder, who prefers to go by Red despite his brown hair). While Teddy feels compelled to fight a battle that was doomed from the start, Stephen is a throwback; his dress, haircut, and “Born Dead” tattoo are in the spirit of James Dean’s Rebel Without A Cause. Red has a bad attitude and an anti-authoritarian streak, but doesn’t feel the need to share it at every possible moment. Instead of raging against a corrupt social order in a rural diner, Red finds greater success raging against his manager’s draconian regulation of paper coffee cups.