Levelland by Rich Hall
Note: This review is from 2005
‘There’s a thin line between comedy and a hostage situation,’ is a much-quoted line from Rich Hall’s stand-up set. And it’s that very theme of being detained against your will that has also inspired his first work as a playwright.
Levelland is set in Texas in the near future, where petrol prices have reached $10 a gallon at the pump. Although that converts to an all-too-believable £1.45 a litre, in oil-addicted America it’s brought about not only frequent power blackouts, but real fears of impending apocalypse, Revelations-style.
From his remote studio, the cult figure of Wayman hosts his popular phone-in show, fielding calls from the deluded, the insane and the prejudiced. Played by Hall himself, Wayman has two traits rare in a talk-show jock - moderation and intelligence – and two that are all-too common - an absolute certainty that he is right, and a fondness for cutting off those who dare disagree.
But the cocooned world he rules is blown apart when a mysterious and apparently unhinged stranger bursts into his sanctuary, doused in sweat, nursing a blooded hand and ranting incoherently. The man, who we later learn is called Scrope, cuts a scary figure, but it’s clear he’s also scared himself, but of who, or what, we don’t know.
So the two parts of this play are established: the social comment which director Guy Masterson, the man behind the all-comedian version of 12 Angry Men, calls ‘what if’ theatre and the taut, claustrophobic thriller.
Despite its creator’s credentials, Levelland is no comedy. There is a black humour to parts of it, especially in Wayman’s cocksure philosophising and his offhand dismissal of the outrageous beliefs of his callers (who could be seen as the dramatic equivalent of hecklers), but otherwise this is played entirely straight.
In fact, the greatest compliment to Hall’s acting is that you quickly forget he’s a stand-up altogether. Wayman might be a biting, no-nonsense, gruff-voiced middle American, just like Hall’s comedy persona, but he’s a real character, brought properly to independent life.
The show, however, is stolen by Nathaniel Davis as the near-psychotic Scrope, whose violent outbursts and terrifying religious fervour gradually dissolve as the chain of events that brought him staggering into this desolate radio studio emerges. He evolves from the aggressor into a more sympathetic figure, and ultimately the victim of callous manipulators.
As the play progresses, the narrative becomes more straightforward and conventional as the back story is filled in and the threads of the plot are tied together, which makes the end not quite as impressive as the start.
But the initial idea of what people would do for oil if – or rather, when – their whole way of life is jeopardised by its scarcity gives an intriguing and satirical edge to the tight script, and the execution in Masterson’s safe hands makes for an absorbing piece of theatre.
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
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