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.
Teddy is the kind of immediate, flimsy rebel who works within the system, and whom authorities love for the same reason, in Stoppard’s words, that “the Inquisition loved heretics.” Red, on the other hand, is the kind of rebel who exists outside any particular epoch, what Tom Stoppard described in Rock ‘N’ Roll as the “unbribable” kind of rebel whose ethic “comes from where the Muses come from.” That side of Red, however, was more apparent in the play's 1983 revival, at a time when youth culture had already undergone repeated boom-and-bust cycles of rage (since the 50s and 60s), and the original burst of punk rock energy had degraded into uniform “Reagan sucks” hardcore.
In 1973, however, it was hard to see that kind of rebel coming back, even in a play that, by the standards of American drama at the time, was particularly locked into the zeitgeist. Clive Barnes described Red Ryder as a character “pathetically out of touch with his time,” not realizing that a new streak of anti-hippie rebellion was about to arise. When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? came out in the same year as Iggy and the Stooges released their defiantly anti-hippie proto-punk classic Raw Power, and right after Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers had recorded their seminal self-titled anti-rock album.
In the wake of the failures of the hippies came a wave of culture that sought to tap into the more primal nature of rebellion. It shoudn’t be that surprising, then, that Medoff would eventually write a sequel to When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? that adjusted to those changes. In 1989’s The Heart Outright, we see Red seven years later, bearing more than a passing resemblance to the punk-influenced Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver.
Yet, instead of reinvigorating the universal rebel figure that was behind both John Wayne and Johnny Rotten, Retro Productions director Ric Sechrest turns in a rather stale production here, loyal to the somewhat dated spirit of the original production. Rather than seeming tough and distant, Ben Schnickel plays Red as wimpy and ineffective as he’s always been. In fact, he’s so wimpy that he’s almost indistinguishable from the ultra-square Richard (David Blais). Towards the end of the play Richard’s wife Clarisse (Matilda Szydagis) begins to trust Red a lot more than she does her husband; the script demands that something about Red’s attitude allows the audience see why. In Sechrest’s production, Richard is arguably tougher than Red, which means we end up following what the script is telling us more than what the production is showing us.
One element I liked about this production, which is much easier to glean after Women’s Lib, is the misogyny built into 1960s revolutionary politics. Even in a movement that was supposed to break free from bourgeois society, ’60s rebellion was largely a bunch of guys screaming and drawing attention to themselves. Teddy’s tag-along girlfriend Cheryl (Casandera M. J. Lollar) most likely admired the older hippies in her youth, but probably didn’t ever expect Peace and Love to end with her holding an innocent diner hostage at gunpoint. The play ends with overweight waitress Angel, the only character who even 40 years later has yet to find a niche in American society, weeping by herself.
While this production may embellish the kitschy side of When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?, the play itself is vital to any transitional period of youthful rebellion. Today, when the blind faith American hipsters put in Obama—after years of relative apathy—is inevitably proving to be too little, too late, the play is a particularly chilling warning against quick-fix rebellion.
Just imagine this scenario: a guy with a grunge look (flannel shirt, wide-cut jeans, an unkempt haircut and shave, teeth that haven’t been brushed for weeks), walks into any barista coffee shop in Williamsburg, Northhampton, Wicker Park, or Austin. In the ’90s, like Red in the ’50s, this Kurt Cobain lookalike would be the new, living, breathing spirit of rebellion. But surrounded by the tight-jeaned, manufactured scruff and indoor sunglasses of today’s young intelligentsia, he’d be out of place, a “poseur,” just as Red’s slicked-back ’50s hairstyle made him look to Teddy’s shaggy Vietnam vet like a “fag.” Sometimes being intentionally outdated, rather than existing for camp, can align you with Stoppard’s Unbribables. While Retro Productions’ When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? may not fully realize this, the play itself does.
Retro Productions presents
WHEN YOU COMIN’ BACK, RED RYDER?
By Mark Medoff
Directed by Ric Sechrest
May 7th – 23rd
Spoon Theater (38 West 38th St.,5th Floor), Tickets $18