It’s easy to see why Ensemble Studio Theater put its chips on “Princes of Waco,” taking playwright Robert Askins into its Youngblood developmental program. In this barroom standoff between the son of a preacher man who yearns to be bad and the lowlife thief who teaches him how, the tyro scribe displays a nice feel for Texas trash and raunchy regional dialect. But the months in workshop didn’t cover plot construction. While it’s fun to listen to Askins’ no-account losers shoot the breeze, the show makes some laconic stabs at New West theatrical forms without finding a distinctive style of its own.
The four characters in the schematically constructed play — set in “the dirtiest bar in Waco” — are interesting without being original. Seventeen-year-old Jim (fresh-faced Evan Enderle) is waiting for the next bus out of town, skipping out on his preacher dad’s funeral, without leaving a note for his mother. The kid doesn’t look like trouble, especially in Enderle’s dewy perf, but the only other customer at the bar, hard-drinking roughneck Fritz (played with great gusto by Scott Sowers), sees something in Jim that we can’t.
In no time at all, this wily old crook has introduced the raw youth to hard liquor, robbed him of his father’s watch and enlisted him as accomplice in a convenience store holdup. But Fritz has also convinced Jim to attend his father’s funeral service (where he tells off the whole town before kicking over the pulpit) and make peace with his mother, so Askins is clearly telegraphing a stronger message here about good/bad dads and the disaffected young men who long for their good/bad counsel.
Before the plot can turn into a road-movie scenario about buddies in crime, Jim’s high school classmate, Esme (a game perf from newbie Megan Tusing), turns up at the bar looking for love — or trouble. And trouble it turns out to be, since Jim and Fritz are both struck dumb with love for this cute piece of jailbait, setting the stage for the nasty betrayals and violent paybacks we can see coming a mile away in act two.
But while Askins’ characters do exactly what’s expected of them, they speak a kind of raggedy-ass poetry that suits the characters, their social circumstances and their milieu.
Years ago, when Fritz took leave of his own homelife, he left a farewell note that said, “Tell everyone I died.” When Jim takes the pulpit of his father’s church, he tells the faithful, “Jesus wants you to know that when he comes back he isn’t coming to Texas.” Explaining to Fritz why she fell for his old-man seduction, Esme says, “It was like you was the trucker rapist of my trundle-bed fantasies.”
Even Toasty the bartender (hard as nails, but bendable, in Christine Farrell’s nuanced perf), speaks in tongues. “Tread on this tire’s too thick, baby,” she says, turning her back on one of Fritz’s clumsy passes.
But talking bad and being bad are two different things, and Askins’ characters are more convincing at the talking than the doing. For all their earnestness, Enderle and Tusing are too clean-cut to convince us of Jim’s capacity for violence or Esme’s lust for trucker rapists. Just as Maiko Chii’s streamlined set (gorgeously lit by Ji-youn Chang) is too pretty to pass for Texas squalor.
Poised uneasily between docudrama naturalism and Sam Shepard surrealism, Dylan McCullough’s handsome production both defines the problem — and defeats the purpose — of a promising young playwright’s imperfectly undefined work.