Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" blasts from the speakers of a stolen car in the opening scene of Theatre Pro Rata's "T Bone N Weasel". This paean to the downtrodden and dispossessed is an ironically suitable anthem for a play about two of the unluckiest ex-cons ever to grace a line-up.
Written by Jon Klein, "T Bone N Weasel" was developed at Midwest Playlabs and premiered in Minneapolis in 1986 before being turned into a made-for-TV movie in 1992. The play follows two men who've just been released from prison as they journey through the back roads of the South. Weasel, played by Mark Benzel, is a wired-up, maniacally gregarious illiterate with the attention span of a puppy. T Bone (Theo Langason) is his polar opposite -- intense, stoic and prickly. Weasel is white and T Bone is black. As they progress on an aimless and ill-fated crime spree, they run into a series of characters, all played by a versatile Ben Tallen, who purport to offer a cross-section of Southern society.
Klein essentially aims this play at the easy laugh by littering it left and right with stereotypes. A good ol' boy sheriff offers smiling menace as he steers Weasel and T Bone out of town. A used-car salesman cheats them out of their stolen Buick. A high-handed landowner, Verna Mae Beaufort, treats them like slave labor -- both in the fields and in the bedroom. A politician takes cynical advantage of them for a photo op. A half-crazed, itinerant preacher spouts biblical passages as he steals their money. And on it goes.
The two main characters aren't immune from Klein's tendency toward caricature either, although Benzel and Langason work hard to lend humanity and good-natured charm to these roles. Langason, in particular, has an uphill battle as the glowering T Bone, a character designed to comment upon the effects of systemic racism while mouthing such Amos 'n Andy-style malapropisms as "condensatin'" for "condescending." Weasel, on the other hand, is straight trailer trash, played for laughs, and Benzel infuses the role with goofy, jittery charm.
Despite its flaws, Theatre Pro Rata gives this play a solid and entertaining production. Amber Bjork's direction is snappy and focused, mining a little depth from this slender comedy, and the staging, on Zach Morton's trash heap of a set, is inventive and amusing. Abandoned car seats glide around the stage, transformed variously into broken down cars, small-town diners and Greyhound buses with ease, accompanied by Jacob M. Davis' detailed sound design. It's too bad that all this talent can't transform Klein's humor into insight.