‘Late: A Cowboy Song’ leaves questions unanswered 

click to enlarge Maria Leigh, left, and Lauren Preston appear in Custom Made Theatre Co.’s production of  “Late: A Cowboy Song.” - COURTESY JAY YAMADA
  • Maria Leigh, left, and Lauren Preston appear in Custom Made Theatre Co.’s production of “Late: A Cowboy Song.”
There are more questions than answers in Sarah Ruhl’s “Late: A Cowboy Song” at Custom Made Theatre Co. The talky treatise on identity will excite playgoers primed to mine deep layers of subtext and frustrate those desiring more linear storytelling.

The one-act is an early work in the canon of the oft-lauded author of “In the Next Room, or the vibrator play.” (Ruhl’s “Eurydice” made its Bay Area premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2004 and San Francisco premiere at Custom Made in 2013.)

Crick is a manchild art lover, unfettered by societal norms of employment and responsibility, living in happy disarray with Mary, his childhood sweetheart. Into the frame saunters Red, Mary’s former schoolmate, a classically laconic cowboy who sings horses to sleep.

The setting is Pittsburgh. Red is a woman. Mary leaves their reunion thoughtlessly late for a dinner Crick has prepared for her, which upsets him. Her next instance of being late – in her menstrual cycle – excites him enough to propose marriage and get a job as an art gallery security guard.

Tensions bubble as Mary continues her friendship with Red and an insecure Crick demands she abandon it. Their marriage further deteriorates with the birth of their intersex child who Crick names Jill and Mary calls Blue.

Unlike the light Chinese broth from her dinners with Red that Mary struggles to replicate, Ruhl adds a lot of ingredients to this highly cerebral stew that never quite clarify. Questions of gender identity are raised – both with the child and with the blossoming but platonic relationship between Mary and Red – but are never really explored. Crick ruminates on art – including being particularly drawn to a Rothko-esque piece at his job – but never develops a coherent thesis. Mary maintains an active inner dialogue with only a glimmer of self-awareness.

The end of the play is therefore neither surprising nor particularly satisfying.

There’s no fault in this to be levied against director Ariel Craft or her cast. As written by Ruhl, Crick (Brian Martin) and Mary (Maria Leigh) open with an annoying, almost artificial childishness. It’s an attitude Crick maintains throughout, save for a self-serving feral detour. Mary’s ongoing pose as naif becomes equally tiresome and by the time she acts it is too late to care.

As Red, Lauren Preston has the greatest impact with the least dialogue. She radiates an easy confidence in her character’s identity. Red clearly wants something, but in Preston’s hands she operates without guile, trusting that the right outcome will reveal itself.

It is unfortunate that Preston is saddled with the cowboy song (lyrics by Ruhl, original music by Liz Ryder) placed interstitially throughout the play. Her voice is too light for the task and pressing for volume only draws attention to the limitation. Ryder, also serving as sound designer, should have mitigated this.


Late: A Cowboy Song

Presented by Custom Made Theatre Co.

Where: Gough Street Playhouse, 1620 Gough St., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Feb. 1

Tickets: $20 to $40

Contact: (415) 798-2682, www.custommade.org

About The Author

Robert Sokol

Robert Sokol

Robert Sokol is the editor at BAYSTAGES, the creative director at VIA MEDIA, and a lifelong arts supporter. Diva wrangler, cinefiler, and occasional saloon singer, he has been touching showbiz all his life. (So far no restraining orders have been issued!)... more
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