A feast of naturalistic acting served on a meta-theatrical dish, The Mad Ones’ collaboratively written The Essential Straight & Narrow glides between two compelling universes of the mind. In a plain hotel room in the 1960s, a broken axle has stranded three members of a touring country band in a small desert town where their internal dramas play out in singer-songwriter Jo’s (Stephanie Wright Thompson) plain-vanilla hotel room.
The last Mad Ones show I saw featured the same primary cast members, similar music, and again a sheen of theatrical self-awareness, but the unreality of that show’s story and tone contrast very sharply with The Essential Straight & Narrow. This consistently sharp gang is also very versatile.
Jo is onstage for pretty much the entire 90 minutes, but when alone, she steps out into the bare, unpainted second half of the stage, ponders a script, then returns to the hotel room to rehearse a scene by herself. How this out-of-the-story sequence relates to the main thread is up to us to guess.
(I came up with a good theory while walking to the subway after the show.)
In any case it creates a secondary draw into a show that’s already compelling, with backstory about a relationship between two band members. There’s a deeply realized local heart-on-sleeve transvestite named Debbie (Marc Bovino) who forcefully befriends the visitors. There’s a Halloween party, shown amid a powerful sequence of passage-of-time blackouts. There are suck-the-air-out moments relating to the band’s career and a beloved cat.
And there is the long, impressive scene in which we get to know the three musicians as they rehearse a song. It stretches on longer than I expected, just as scenes in real life do (although we never get to hear the whole song, and I wish we could, it sounds beautiful). It’s the ability of the three actors playing the musicians – Thompson, Joe Curnutte, and Michael Dalto (and of Bovino and the supporting cast) to continuously inhabit “the moment” that makes this scene and those that follow pulse with the kind of warm life, twisted and difficult just like real life, that it’s so rewarding to see on stage – and that makes the play easily one of the best shows I’ve seen this year.