Not So Wicked

Ah, the glorious life of a successful playwright. The fame, the prestige. Take William Inge. Won a Pulitzer Prize for drama with his 1953 play Picnic.Had four hit shows in six years on Broadway. Received an Academy Award in 1961 for Splendor in the Grass.Is regarded as the American stage's most accomplished chronicler of Midwestern life.

Was also a homosexual who never came to terms with being gay in a straight society and who lived his last years in a dark depression.

The 1960s were not kind to such a man, and Inge fell quickly out of favor with critics and audiences alike. On June 10, 1973, he was found behind the wheel of his car, dead from carbon-monoxide poisoning. On a table in his living room was an unopened brown envelope containing the typescript of his latest novel, recently rejected.

The intervening years have been hot and cold for Inge. His plays Picnicand Bus Stopremain two of the most popular on the community theater circuit. But his critical reputation is yet to be restored. At the height of Inge's popularity, Robert Brustein dismissed his work in a Harper'sessay on the grounds that he portrayed men as wimps who compromised their masculinity in order to curry the favor of women. He called Inge “the first spokesman for matriarchal America,” a man who penned “she-dramas” in which the “hero gives up his distinguishing characteristic of sexual dynamism since marriage demands a sacrifice of the hero's image . . . of maleness.” More recently, theater bad boy Charles Marowitz was even more venomous. In reviewing a Pasadena Playhouse production of Bus Stopin 1990, Marowitz wrote that Inge's work was adored by “bozos” because it is “light comedy for suburban subnormals who relish the sound of commonplace thoughts in the mouths of commonplace characters which, ironically, appear to be superior to themselves—and probably are.”

That's the anti-Inge lobby. More favorably, Elia Kazan described the Kansas-born Inge—then at the height of his popularity—as a writer of what appeared to be “soap operas until suddenly it appears there is a little more depth and humanity there, as well as a balanced view of life.”

Now, with two Inge plays in production—the Huntington Beach Playhouse is mounting Bus Stop, the Westminster Community Theater Picnic—you can make your own assessment.

I made it to Bus Stop, a play superior in nearly every way to Picnicand one that suggests Kazan had it right. Yes, Inge draws simple characters. And yes, his plays are predictable—so salt-of-the-earth that the shit detectors of even the ingenuous are likely to go off. But his characters are marbled with a solid vein of searching. Flawed and lonely, desperate and needy, they nevertheless retain an identifiable spark of humanity that helps audiences connect. Stripped to their core, they're all looking for love.

Something else that many an Inge-hater over the years has conveniently forgotten (and which this Terri Miller Schmidt production reminds us of): Inge wrote some damn funny dialogue.

Bus Stop is surprisingly deep: eight characters—a bus driver, four passengers, the local sheriff, a waitress and the proprietor of the diner—are stranded overnight in a roadside diner, waiting out a snowstorm. The play moves like a less surreal Seinfeld: parallel plots and subplots abound, each involving love. The most intellectually provoking is the story between bus passenger Dr. Gerald Lyman (the always capable Howard Patterson, who could stand to speak up just a touch), a drunk, Shakespeare-spouting doctor of philosophy with a hankering for young girls, and his latest prey, the book-smart, street-dumb waitress Elma (a sweetly naive Mindy Titus).

But the play's engine is the romance between Bo (a well-cast Dean Hart playing a brash cowboy) and Cherie (a believable Kerri Vickers). Cherie is a dancer/singer who balled Bo one night in Kansas City in a moment of drunken passion only to wake up and realize this 21-year-old cowpoke has decided to claim her as his wife. Bo's transformation—from cocksure rodeo cowboy to pussy-whipped lover—is where Inge's critics come down hardest. They have argued that Bo's lesson is a pernicious one—that he must temper his masculine energy, become tender and sensitive, and learn to treat his woman the way she wants to be treated (like a “baby”) in order for romance to flourish.

That's one way of looking at the dynamic. But it's just as valid to see Bo as a young man who has been struck for the first time by Cupid's arrow. He's madly in love, and he'll do anything to make that love work.

That's not the most earth-shattering premise, but it's simple and wholesome and accounts for some of Bus Stop's popularity. And even amid the sticky sentimentality, Inge fires a warning: it takes strong people to love, one character says. Only those with a firm understanding of themselves can give themselves completely to another.

The cast is uniformly solid, and director Schmidt nails the play's high and low comedy. But the play is almost communist Chinese in its tepid approach to sexuality. Nearly all these characters are high on sex—it's like Oklahomain Mel's diner. Everyone is getting laid, openly wanting to get laid or dreaming about getting laid. But the smoldering physicality of the film version of Bus Stop—made that way by Marilyn Monroe's performance as Cherie—is largely absent here. The sex is handled with rubber gloves. Instead of sensuality, we have mannered affection. Except for Marsha Collins' randy portrayal of Grace, the diner's owner, the characterizations in Inge's play seem caught in the sanitized '50s of I Love Lucyinstead of the more primal '50s of Peyton Place.

The lack of sensuality reinforces one important part of Inge's play: when all is said and done, when the drunks sober up and the horniness is appeased, all the characters are revealed as decent people. In a moment like this one, among audiences like these, that's a powerful assertion—and it's likely to resonate as long as people need reassurance that in our deepest, darkest heart, maybe we're not so dark after all.

Bus Stop at the Huntington Beach Playhouse, 7111 Talbert Ave., Huntington Beach, (714) 375-0696. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through Oct. 7. $7-$15.

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