Kenny Finkle’s “Alive and Well” is neither. The Old Globe world premiere, detailing a mismatched couple’s romantic road trip across a Civil War battlefield, brings to mind the likes of “The African Queen” and “It Happened One Night” without much awareness on display of what makes their genre tick. The germ of a good idea – a Southerner and Northerner acting out America’s attempt to transcend its blue state/red state differences – founders on the shoals of illogic and unlikability.
Our red state rep is Zachariah Clemenson (James Knight), a professional Civil War recreator with disdain for anything or anyone “farb” (inauthentic). Highest on that list is Carla (Kelly McAndrew), a visiting Yankee journalist he’s been engaged to guide across Virginia in search of the legendary, ghostly “Lonesome Soldier,” an obvious symbol for the ongoing tensions the events of 1861-65 couldn’t bring to closure.
The script never clarifies whether Zachariah is a true hick, poet in the raw or intellectual manque, forcing Knight to juggle wisps of those personas while justifying silly, out-of-character crying jags.
Still, he mostly maintains presence and appealing authority, which is more than one can say for the smug, overbearing McAndrew. A highly unprofessional Carla says she needs this assignment, but she’s done no research and shows no reporter’s interest in the environment, mostly complaining and squealing brittle quips.
Finkle sidesteps truly deep-seated North/South tensions, including basic nomenclature (most Southerners insist on “War Between the States”), in favor of sitcom cliches: Zach likes Jeff Foxworthy and eats noisily, while she cherishes her BlackBerry and Charlie Rose.
They bicker less than credibly until too many sips from a flask bring the hair down. Come the dawn, Carla again sports her characteristic sourpuss and the game tediously resumes. An 11th hour plot twists fails to convince.
Jeremy Dobrish’s staging displays little affinity for commercial comedy conventions. Besides indulging mannered wordplay (from both thesps) and outrageous mugging (from McAndrew), he permits the tone to lurch from farce to maudlin sentiment without adequate setup.
He steers Michael Gottlieb to some delicate lighting effects, while betraying a curious indifference to given circumstances. The pair’s shouting and movement in a diner would never be tolerated by patrons or manager. Seeking shelter from a punishing storm, they bounce around a deserted cabin as if hopped up on speed; after days of tromping in the mud she pulls a People magazine from her boot (don’t ask) and it’s fresh as a daisy.
The absence of exhaustion, or of any reality of being drenched, is just plain farb.