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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014

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Lindsey L. Gagliano (left) and Libby Amato star in the first of the two one-acts that make up "1959 Pink Thunderbird."
Lindsey L. Gagliano (left) and Libby Amato star in the first of the two one-acts that make up "1959 Pink Thunderbird." (Photo: Mark Frohna )

In Tandem's "1959 Pink Thunderbird" is headed to the junkyard

Texas is a big, big state, with ribbons of roads that run forever and don’t seem to go anyplace.

That description of the state would also be a fitting description for "1959 Pink Thunderbird," the awkward, Texas-based season finale for In Tandem that opened Friday night and runs through May 18. 

Thunderbird is really two one-act plays by James McLure, "Laundry and Bourbon" and "Lone Star." The two plays are presented together because there is a common thread of characters and story that runs through both of them, as well as a common location: Maynard, Texas, in 1978.

"Laundry" comes first. It’s about three women who went to high school together and then took divergent paths. All three women have a variety of problems, and they both share and shame each other.

To say "Laundry" is breathtakingly long and slow doesn’t begin to describe it. Nothing happens. It’s at one woman’s house. Her friend arrives. Then the third woman comes by, and they all gossip and then the two friends leave and the one woman is left alone. Thank goodness the lights came on for intermission.

It’s hard to know where to start when describing what happened – or more accurately didn’t happen – on stage.

Libby Amato, who I love onstage, plays housewife number one, whose back porch is the setting. Amato is wistful and spends more time meaningfully staring off into the horizon (minus the meaning) than really makes much sense.

She is joined by Lindsey L. Gagliano, who is the longtime friend number one. Gagliano gives new meaning to over-the-top performances. She is loud and overbearing, and she thinks she’s funny, but she’s not. She has two lengthy phone conversation with her children, and they are a perfect example of how nobody I know talks on the phone.

She repeats what the people on the other end say, so the audience isn’t left in the dark (like I said, I don’t know anyone who really talks that way). Plus, the conversations seemed to go on forever.

The third friend is Mary C. McLellan, playing the "I married into money and belong to the country club, nah-nah-nah and you don’t" friend.

There are a couple of real problems here. The main one is that nobody seems like a real person.

This is 1979 Texas. It’s a boiling summer day. The air conditioning is broken. They are drinking bourbon and cokes. This cries out for slow, but for some reason, the performances move at a pace that seems like some kind of weird race is being run. The contest seems to be who can talk faster and louder, and it ends up with Gagliano taking first place by a mile and Amato and McLellan in a tie for second.

After intermission, we move to "Lone Star," named after the famous Texas beer. It takes place behind a typical honky-tonk, featuring actors Matt Koester and Bob Maass as brothers.

Koester returned from Vietnam two years earlier while Maass didn’t go. Koester obviously has PTSD and can’t seem to get over his war and his youth. He’s also in love with his pink Thunderbird convertible, which was his personal symbol of the best of days and of the kind of guy he wants to be.

We open with Koester and Maass telling us how drunk they are. They then proceed to act like two perfectly sober men, one angry, the other forlorn.

Playing a drunk is a difficult task. But when you think about it, drunk people tend to slow down. They are careful with their words, exaggerating pronunciation so nobody will think they are drunk. Just slouching in a chair doesn’t say "drunk." They needed to find some depth. None of that appears here.

Koester is great at being fiercely angry at his brother and at his world. Maas is a monotone of a lump who tries to keep his brother from going off the deep end while teasing him at the same time.

And finally the appearance that just about brought the entire evening crashing down. Matt Zembrowski, the nerd husband of the country club wife in the first play, shows up. He looks and acts like a one-dimensional Pee Wee Herman. Nobody, and I mean nobody in the entire world, is even close to what Zembrowski gives us. His work is so thin that if I stuck a pocket knife in his character, it would undoubtedly come out the other side.

I will say that there are some moments of humor in "Lone Star," but they are few and far between, lost in a tidal wave of a production that is not nearly ready for prime time.

One of the most interesting things about this production was that Amato and McLellan starred in "The Nightmare Room" at In Tandem. The play was magnificent, and the two actors kept me riveted. 

It was a shame to see them trapped in such mediocrity Friday night. It wasn’t worthy of them or In Tandem.

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