Lehrer's `Chili Queen'. Play by TV newsman shows how minor spat makes front-page news

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When Buddy Hardeman swaggered into Junior's Chili Queen in northeast Texas and ordered a blue-hot chiliburger with cheese, lettuce, mayo (hold the onions), he got considerably more than he asked for. He got a media event, sozzled with ketchup and served up with style in Jim Lehrer's new play ``Chili Queen.'' Mr. Lehrer, the ex-Texan half of the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour on PBS, knows the territory - both television and Texas. He has written a funny, endearing, and at the end, startling, play about what happens when media hype turns a $10 misunderstanding into a siege with a terrible cost. The play, which received encouraging reviews in an Off Off Broadway production, is now at Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater. This is the first major production for Lehrer, author of other plays, novels, and short stories.

It all started, as they say on the nightly news, when Buddy Hardeman picked up his cheeseburger and then told Chili Queen's only waitress, Velma Louise Allen, that she'd shortchanged him $10. He'd given her his last $20, he said, and she'd only given him change for a 10. She denied she made a mistake, and they argued up a storm that eventually involved Sheriff Duane Sherman, who stopped by on a coffee break, and Chili Queen owner Junior Denison, as well as Junior's under-the-counter pistol.

When Buddy Hardeman grabs the pistol and demands his money back from the unbudging Velma, Junior's Chili Queen suddenly becomes the site of a hostage standoff. At least, that's the way the Texas radio and TV stations play it. What had been a minor dispute over change escalates into a production number that leaves the restaurant surrounded by offstage police cars with flashing red lights, TV trucks, reporters, photographers, machine guns, a SWAT team, and a helicopter hovering overhead. A TV anchorman has called, offering to copter in and mediate the hostage situation on camera. Reporters from the other channels, newspapers, radio stations, and a wire service call for exclusive interviews.

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Velma, who is the only hostage, poses for the TV cameras while Buddy obediently points the gun at her head, as the anchorman requests, and they both smile from the sheer publicity of it all. ``I guess this is television,'' says Velma happily, looking around her. ``Would you look at all the people. We really are famous.''

During the time that she has been the hostage and he the hostagee, they have stopped snarling at each other and begun talking about their lives. Each discovers that the other feels unwanted and unloved. Buddy has left home after a miserable time in high school, when it was suddenly flung in his teeth that he was adopted. Velma, whose ex-husband cares less about her than his truck, works hard to support an uncaring ingrate of a son.

Lehrer obviously loves his characters with all their problems and flaws and gives us an amusing but compassionate slice of their lives. There is empathy for sheriff Duane Sherman, who'd rather mediate a holdup than arrest anyone, and who's within an ace of winning a diamond-dusted badge as one of the best sheriffs in the state when this thing blows up. Even the Chili Queen's owner, Junior Denison, who is greedy for success, is a sympathetic character. They razz him about his dream: an empire built on chili-sicles, chili frozen on a stick.

There is so much that's good about ``Chili Queen'' it's difficult to say why it doesn't quite work yet. Some suggestions: that the first act be shortened and tightened and that the media siege begin more quickly. The second act really captured the audience and built well toward the O. Henry ending. But there isn't enough pacing or tension in some of the scenes; director Frances Hill could speed up the pace and crisp up the delivery without sacrificing the pungency or laughs. One specific problem: At the end, it looks for a moment as though Buddy has just taken a pratfall, which works against the impact. The messsage needs to be clearer and more dramatic.

Rick J. Porter gives a riveting performance as Buddy Hardeman, playing him as an East Texas James Dean with a dangerous edge. He is utterly convincing as the rejected kid who has nothing left in life but his 1978 Impala. Jayne Chamberlin slings hash and fast lines with the best of them as Velma. Sassy, brassy, and stubborn, she hints at the vulnerability of her character but stops short of risking a deeper performance. Paul Doherty is amiable and breezy as Junior, who's ambitious enough to push even chili-stuffed pork chops. And Fred Burrell makes an offbeat, slyly funny sheriff with a weakness for pecan pie.

The set looks just right in Reagan Cook's realistic d'ecor, with its Formica tables, vinyl lattice work, plastic plants, and the Dr Pepper clock on the wall. All that's missing is the scent of chili brewing on the back burner.

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