In its new home, a former Bloomfield vaudeville and movie house built more than 90 years ago, 12 Miles West winds up its season with John Wooten’s volatile barroom drama “Happy Hour.” Unfolding in roadside New Mexico, somewhere between El Paso and Los Cruces, dreams are shattered and violence erupts among a seedy assemblage of local losers and an innocent traveler. Cutting direction and sharply defined acting give the drama a compelling thrust.
Frank (Sam Kitchin), owner of the Desert Cocktail Lounge, a tacky topless saloon on a remote strip of rural highway, is anxiously awaiting state approval for a gambling license to revitalize his floundering business. He has unwisely enlisted necessary additional funding from ruthless prairie biker Beck (Jimmy Gushue). An innocent traveling college journalist (Paul Reisman) stumbles into the nest of vipers when his car overheats, and finds some comfort with the barkeep’s comely daughter, Jenn, acted with fetching allure by Heather Tom.
The bite and flavor of the play is generated by a keen, crusty cast. As vicious, sadistic lout Beck, Gushue is a bullying force that dominates the drama from his entrance to the unnerving finale. The feisty but vulnerable Jenn provides a calming sense of order. When forced to undress on the dance floor by the lecherous Beck, Jenn becomes a tragic victim of angry brutishness, prompting a chilling conclusion.
Jim Aylward adds a touch of grizzled humor as beer-guzzling old-timer Ben. Kitchin’s frustrated proprietor is acted with a bold sense of purpose. Reisman’s student is an underwritten role, yet the character comes to the rescue of a lady in distress, just in the nick of time.
Playwright Wooten — who grew up in his father’s desert bar — has a sure grasp of his characters and setting. His play is vividly melodramatic and strongly cinematic, with dialogue that boasts considerable crackle.
Staging by 12 Miles West a.d. Lenny Bart is invested with a deliberate dynamic power that accents both the tension and its menacing undertow. One can almost taste the flat beer in the smoky terrain as designed by Jessica Parks, while Liz Zazzi’s costumes have an appropriate dusty, weathered look.