During his many years anchoring PBS's "NewsHour," Jim Lehrer has been in a position to observe the comic and tragic absurdities that occur when a news story is blown out of proportion and escalates into a news frenzy.

During his many years anchoring PBS’s “NewsHour,” Jim Lehrer has been in a position to observe the comic and tragic absurdities that occur when a news story is blown out of proportion and escalates into a news frenzy. “Chili Queen” takes a look within the center of a media hurricane at the participants who are being amplified and victimized by events they no longer can control. Despite the adroit staging of Del Tenney and a first-rate ensemble, Lehrer’s 1985 play runs out of content very early, eventually leading to an unsatisfying, predictable conclusion.

In a minuscule community in northeast Texas, surly 25-year-old drifter Buddy Hardeman (Brad Beyer) disagrees with the amount of change he has received from waitress Velma Allen (Margot Hartman) at the local edition of fast-food franchise Chili Queen.

Buddy claims she owes him another $10 and she vehemently swears she doesn’t. Before long, the intractable Buddy and no-nonsense, overworked, middle-aged Velma have argued themselves into a hostage situation.

Buddy has confiscated the gun of young restaurant owner Junior Denison (Neal Mayer), forcing town sheriff Duane Sherman (Peter Ratray) to surround the diner with all the law enforcement he can muster, including a SWAT team flown in from Dallas.

Of course, the media soon swarms all over the situation, calling Velma and Buddy “the $10 odd couple,” making instant celebrities out of the pair, much to their delight. Once this has been established, Lehrer’s scenario loses all its energy. Velma and Buddy spend most of the time complaining about how unfair life has been to them. Their parallel situations are that he was raised by an unloving mother and she has brought up an unloving son.

Adding somewhat to the mix are the woeful concerns of would-be entrepreneur Junior, whose great ambition in life is to own all the Chili Queen diners in the world.

To his credit, director Tenney never allows the action to disintegrate into a static, two-person confrontation. Aided immensely by the perfectly wrought diner setting of Eldon Elder, the characters appear to be truly inhabiting their environment as they squirm and prance under the glare of the combined forces of media and law enforcement right outside the huge pane-glass window that is imagined fourth wall of the production.

Beyer provides an amazingly effective presence as the barely literate, unemployed gas-station attendant who moves about the Chili Queen as if his body and mind are uncomfortable in any enclosed environment.

Equally rewarding is the performance of Hartman as the life-burdened Velma, who begins to radiate within the attention being paid to her no matter how momentary.

Lending solid support are Mayer as the nebbishy Junior whose dreams far outdistance his capabilities, and Ratray’s fatherly but reality-saddened Sheriff.

Chili Queen

Coronet Theatre, West Hollywood; 272 seats; $35 top

Production

Del Tenney & Kermit Christman present a play in two acts by Jim Lehrer, directed by Del Tenney.

Creative

Sets, Eldon Elder; lighting, Daniel Gordon; costumes, Erik Bruce, sound design, Sean Morrissey. Opened, reviewed Feb. 20, 1998; runs through March 15. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

Cast

Cast: Margot Hartman (Velma Allen), Peter Ratray (Duane Sherman), Brad Beyer (Buddy Hardeman), Neal Mayer (Junior Denison).
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