There’s something about a good country song that — despite the overly familiar characters, stories and sentiment — can still get to you. The same can be said of “Floyd and Clea Under the Western Sky,” David Cale’s two-hander (with three on-stage musicians) which is getting a second go-round in Hartford following its preem last spring at Chicago’s Goodman Theater before it heads to an eventual perch in Gotham.
Best known as a solo performer, Cale takes a supporting character he played in the 2002 indie film “The Slaughter Rule” and gives him life in more ways than one. In the movie, the character of Floyd Duffner, a 40-something, down-and-out honky-tonk singer who lives out of his Studebaker in nowheresville Montana, dies. But in Cale’s show, Floyd has a kinder fate.
Salvation arrives in the form of plucky, self-assured 20-year-old Clea (Sarah Glendening), who brings him back to life by offering him care, coffee and a reason to sing. Her own burgeoning musical talent revives his and gradually he gets off booze, cleans himself up and starts singing again. Through her chaste care and devotion, he is redeemed.
The piece, however, loses its potency when two-thirds of the way though the leisurely piece the characters part, and Clea leaves to find fame and fortune in L.A.
Narrative-crammed off-stage story has her being discovered singing in a bar, acting in films and then sliding down the path of cigarettes, drink and drugs, despite her Mormon upbringing. (In American theater it seems, Mormons have become the new Jews.)
Hitting bottom in Hollywood, the fallen angel eventually returns to Floyd, whose career has been given a boost with the success of a song that Clea put in one of her films. Now it’s his turn to play savior, helping her back on the road to recovery and renewal.
Can’t you just hear the twang of the steel guitar? There’s nothing terribly original in the star-is-reborn outline, and at times you’re waiting for the story to go down some surprising path. Though it sticks to its well-worn narrative road each modest scene still manages to be effective, thanks to the appeal of the characters and the wryness of the writing. (Floyd’s dialogue is sprinkled with country-Zen musings: “I thought I’d seen the bottom before but I’ll tell you it was just the mezzanine.”).
As the characters talk about life, love and what is important in the world, it brings to mind such seemingly simple and sentimental writers as Thornton Wilder and Horton Foote (especially the latter’s “Tender Mercies”).
But sometimes the scenes are just sketchy, the back story superimposed and the characters insufficiently motivated, with writing that can dip into triteness. “It’s not the end, it’s the beginning,” says Clea, a line that might be excused for the character’s naivete but is wince-inducing nonetheless.
But just like a series of songs on a country recording, there’s a cumulative emotional pull that derives from the honesty in the playing and the beauty of the music. Jonathan Kreisberg and Cale wrote a dozen tuneful, smart and musically-fitting songs, performed by the well-seasoned onstage trio.
Floyd’s “Safety Net” is a song of raw vulnerability that brings to mind the lonely ache and raw vibrato of Johnny Cash; the Woody Guthrie-sounding “Simple Life” gives dignity to the honest and humble job Floyd finds; and “White Cowboy Hat” works both as one from the heart and the power ballad it eventually becomes. Clea’s “Greedy” and “I’ll Be Your Secret” show the potential of this hungry talent as well as the more contemporary style that connects her to a different Nashville.
The Brit-born Cale has created a wonderful character in Floyd and beautifully plays his oddball warmth and humor as well as his inner fears and frustration. His perf is transformative, shifting from self-mocking despair to luminous joy when he unexpectedly discovers he finally has a hit song. Glendening has more sweetness than roughness as Clea but her singing chops are solid and she makes you believe in the viability of her rising star.
In a way, “Floyd and Clea” is like those panoramic photographs that Floyd takes of Clea. Though the landscape is familiar and not as many of the details come through, there’s still a sweet sweep in its glimpse of a beautiful world.