Mark Medoff’s “The Heart Outright” (at the Lex), a pair of one-acts focusing on the same character, is a strange sort of sequel.
The character is Stephen Ryder, appropriated from Medoff’s first major success, “When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?” (1973). Before intermission, it’s 1979 and Stephen addresses the audience in a monologue. Afterwards, it’s 1983, and Stephen is in a conventionally realistic play, complete with the fourth wall separating the actors from the audience.
The first act is less of a sequel than the second, with fewer references to the incidents of “Red Ryder,” and it’s more successful. Living in Austin, Tex., Stephen runs a porno movie theater, but he does it honorably. He takes pride in his theater, if not in the movies he shows. As he talks to the audience, he meticulously cleans the lobby.
The play portrays a man who desperately clings to certain values because they give him sustenance, not because they help accomplish anything in the outside world, which appears to be sinking slowly into the mire. The inherent irony is hammered home a little too hard by actor Brett Cullen, but the performance is undeniably engaging.
One quibble about John Iacovelli’s set: the movie posters in the lobby are sexually teasing ads for mainstream movies, not porno flicks. Why would Stephen help promote the competition?
In the second half of “The Heart Outright,” Stephen has returned to his hometown in New Mexico, where “Red Ryder” was set, for his mother’s funeral. He’s about to board a bus back to Texas when he’s accosted by former classmate Dick Turpin (Willie Garson) who now manages the bus station; by Angel (Lauren Tewes), who liked him back in 1969 and still pines for him; and by his greedy ex-stepfather (Will MacMillan).
Primarily through the character of Dick, Medoff misrepresents our impression of Stephen from “Red Ryder.” In Dick’s eyes, Stephen became a hero in the events depicted in “Red Ryder,” when he and Angel were among the hostages briefly held by an outlaw in the diner where they worked.
In fact, there’s no reason why anyone--even dim Dick--would think of Stephen that way at the end of “Red Ryder” or thereafter. Yes, during “Ryder” he makes one abortive attempt to overpower the gunman of that play, but it’s an attempt accurately described by the gunman himself as “inept.” After the bad guy leaves, Stephen is seen hitching a ride out of town.
So the second half of “The Heart Outright” inflates Stephen’s reputation only to turn around and deflate it, to show us his shortcomings--something we’ve already seen. Why bother?
The second half works better when Stephen is dealing with Angel instead of Dick. The Stephen-Angel exchanges are less contrived. And Tewes’ assured performance as the quickly aging Angel is rather affecting, especially when contrasted with Garson’s annoyingly mannered overplaying of his overwritten role.
Cullen, meanwhile, tones down Stephen during intermission--maybe because he no longer carries the play by himself--and creates a skillfully restrained characterization of a cynical but upright guy.
Sheri Kane directed, for A Directors’ Theatre.
At 6760 Lexington Ave., Hollywood, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., through April 23, with a signed performance on April 8. Tickets: $10-$15; (213) 466-1767.