The best thing about "Jesse and the Bandit Queen" at the Bowery Theatre is the San Diego debut of actor Patrick Egan.
That Egan manages to breathe life into playwright David Freeman's cartoonish conception of Jesse James is remarkable. His secret seems to be keeping it simple; his Jesse isn't too bright. Thus, even without too much insight or explication on the part of the playwright, Egan subtly persuades the audience that, yes, it could have happened that a man like Jesse might have begun as a Confederate soldier taking out his frustration at the loss of the Civil War on everyone he perceived to be as Union sympathizers--even to the point of raping a little girl whom he rationalizes might have grown up to espouse the Union cause.
If only Freeman cared more about how and why this historical character did what he did. Instead, he seems awed by James' fame--romanticizing him as if fame justified the crimes. And because he is so intrigued by celebrity, rather than truth, he pairs James with Belle Starr in this two-person play.
It sounds like a television sitcom writer's classic scenario: These two famous outlaws probably never met, but if they did, wouldn't it be a neat show?
Well, no, not really. Not judging from "Jesse and the Bandit Queen." And especially not in the light of the fine work done on the film "Bonnie and Clyde," in which you feel the force of the characters' frustrations, fears and insecurities. You see the ugly side of crime, not this romantic blur in which every one of Starr's accusations of James' sadism ends in an embrace.
The most problematic part in this highly problematic play falls in the lap of Mickey Mullany as Starr. It's one of those parts that looks better than it is; the actress gets to be on stage a lot and play a variety of emotions--from anger to seduction to longing to love. But there is no internal emotional sense to the character, no clue as to what makes her tick.
Instead we get a curious mix of psychosexual babble in which Starr wants to be Jesse and wear his clothes and do his deeds with him. Not for any particular reason; it's just that Freeman has swallowed Freud's theory about women wanting to be men, hook, line and sinker.
And sink this show does, despite some cleverness of construction--the play is written in a series of vignettes in which James and Starr both play a variety of characters in each other's lives, including Belle's horse, Venus. That the show has its moments is a credit to the high standards of the Bowery Theatre, which give this script a better production than it deserves.
Ollie Nash directs with a boldly visual style that elicits sparks--there would have been a fire if he only had a script that worked with him and not against him. The set design by John Blunt and Bowery artistic director Ralph Elias is a lovely, suggestive scene torn out of the pages of a Wild West movie, with log cabin walls, dry brush and a simple white screen, nicely washed by Kris Sabel's subtle lighting.
Dione Lebhar's costumes are richly detailed; the heavy ruffles and striking designs for Starr are enticing, though it is hard to imagine her rustling cattle and horses in such heavy clothing. The sound design by Lawrence Czoka sets a nostalgic Western mood--easy on the ear, but again, oddly gentle in light of some of the cold-blooded deeds being described.
Perhaps it was too much to expect for the Bowery, which had three hit shows in a row, to end its season with a bang. Still, one can't help being wistful about the theater closing "Teibele and Her Demon"--which played to sell-out crowds--just so it would have time to present this one before season's end. If not for providing a stage for Egan's debut, this really would have been a waste of talent and time.
"JESSE AND THE BANDIT QUEEN"
By David Freeman. Director, Ollie Nash. Set, John Blunt and Ralph Elias. Lighting, Kris Sabel. Costumes, Dione Lebhar. Sound, Lawrence Czoka. With Patrick Egan and Mickey Mullany. At 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through June 9. Tickets are $14-16. At 1057 1st Ave., San Diego, (619) 232-4088.