At once tediously predictable and fuzzily focused, “Late: A Cowboy Song” likely will do little to further boost the rising stock of Susan Smith Blackburn Prize-winning playwright Sarah Ruhl (“The Clean House”). World premiere of slight two-act three-hander at Houston’s Stages Repertory Theater suggests a work in progress that has a long way to go, and may not be worth additional effort.
Final destination for this short but unsatisfying journey is readily apparent in play’s opening minutes. Chronically tardy Mary (Christine Auten) returns to the Pittsburgh apartment she shares with Crick (Corby Sullivan), the childhood sweetheart who grew up to be her live-in lover.
As the twentysomethings converse, Crick reveals himself as petulant, immature and given to emotional blackmail, while Mary comes off as kind and loving but vaguely restless. She’s late, she says, because she fortuitously ran into Red (Susan O. Koozin), a former classmate now working as a cowboy — yes, right on the outskirts of Pittsburgh — who appears to represent freedom, serenity and other things Mary sorely lacks.
Only theatergoers who can’t guess what happens next will be at all enthralled by the slow, plodding process of changing partners. It takes 41 scenes — some mercifully shorter than 15 seconds — for Mary and Red to wind up standing together beneath a Pittsburgh prairie sky while Crick sits abandoned on designer Kirk Markley’s aptly bland apartment set. Director Bob Bundy never manages to convey a sense of narrative momentum or psychological revelation.
Mary and Crick impulsively marry after she finds she is pregnant (or, in keeping with the title, late again), but parenthood fails to re-seal their fraying bond.
As written by Ruhl and played by Sullivan, Crick skirts perilously close to completely unsympathetic in his self-indulgent sentimentality and dreamy irresponsibility. His one saving grace, a profound respect for art, cues his finding work as a museum guard — and, unfortunately, triggers a late plot twist that is, in Mary’s view, a final step in the collapse of their relationship.
Markley’s set allows for a raised rear platform, atop which Koozin periodically strolls while singing a faux country tune. Some songs may be intended as outright parodies and others may be sincere, but it’s hard to tell the difference. Other stagecraft trickery, including rear-screen projection of galloping horses and Mary’s fateful ride atop what resembles a saddled sawhorse, seems a shade too literal-minded.
Looking very much like she could moonlight as a linebacker when she’s not breaking horses, Koozin hits the right notes of understated swagger and wistful melancholy in her scenes opposite Auten, adding at least a second dimension to a sketchily written character. Auten, too, has some affecting moments, but she’s hard-pressed to maneuver through some arbitrary second-act mood shifts.
Ruhl evidently intends “Late” as some kind of statement about the ever-accelerating pace of modern life, and the pressing need to stop and smell the flowers (or ride the horses). But this theme is better developed in the director’s program notes. On stage, theme is bluntly announced but inadequately dramatized. There’s a second-act sequence that has Mary and Crick celebrating a year’s worth of holidays in a few minutes, but it’s too much, too late.
Indeed, it’s difficult to shake the impression that, despite Ruhl’s feints in this or that direction, “Late” is nothing more than an irony-steeped, gay-themed melodrama about a “mannish” cowgirl who woos a discontent woman away from her weakling husband. And while it’s possible, even probable, that an intriguing and challenging play could be developed from such a premise, “Late” isn’t it.