Photo by Chad Batka
By Jeremy D. Goodwin for Phish.net
Hands on a Hardbody came to be despite several built-in challenges. The premise—Texans trying to win a pickup truck—could seem less than compelling to the New York theatregoer, and it has an episodic narrative involving about a dozen main characters more or less standing around.
But it also has core strengths: a book-writer, Doug Wright, who’s channeled his brilliance into straight plays like Quills and I Am My Own Wife (for which he won the Pulitzer), and successful musicals Grey Gardens and, yes, The Little Mermaid. (One-man shows about German transvestites can’t pay all the bills, no matter how many Tony’s they win.) It also has a newbie composer in Trey Anastasio, who has shown his own brilliance writing pop/rock songs in varying styles for various contexts, and was up for the challenge of writing to the very specific parameters of the stage. And it was fast-tracked for Broadway after an initial run as a La Jolla Playhouse commission last season.
So, does it transcend those built-in hurdles and make a virtue of its challenges?
The problems in the show, finally, were as easy to see coming as a shiny red pickup truck. But Hands has an original voice, socially relevant subtext, and more than a few good (if not great) songs.
The story is summed up pretty easily: a motley group of Texans competes to win a hardbody pickup truck by seeing who can stand there the longest with one hand upon it. It’s adapted from S.R. Bindler’s 1997 documentary film, depicting an annual event in Longview, Texas. (In the film, the winner holds out for an arm-and-brain-numbing 77 hours.)
These characters, whose motivations for winning the truck range from selling it for tuition money to starting a landscaping business, are neither laughable caricatures nor imbued with mystical, poverty-inspired righteousness. The show has verisimilitude, from a reference to Highlander to the wisecrack “That girl’s more jacked up than an antique Chevy on a redneck’s lawn.”
Amanda Green’s lyrics are particularly striking. They’re the words of the losers in a broken economy, nodding to the transformative power of personal relationships without sagging into sentimentality. Several times I thought: that’s pretty dark for Broadway. Whether it’s a quiet Iraq veteran admitting “I don’t feel like living any longer,” lead contest contender Benny Perkins singing of his “awful emptiness” after a family tragedy, or a dealership employee citing her “twins sleeping on a sofa bed and eating oatmeal for dinner,” there’s a matter-of-fact bleakness to these lives.
Hands doesn’t explicitly acknowledge that the real-life contest was finally called off after the year when a losing participant walked to a WalMart across the street, bought a gun and shot himself. But the premise hinges on the notion that the stakes are very high. That comes across. When Benny sings, “You’re fighting for your breath from the moment of your birth,” we believe it.
Director Neil Pepe (Speed-the-Plow, 2008) keeps things moving at a brisk pace, and the ensemble cast is mostly excellent. Keith Carradine (The Will Roger Follies, TV’s Dexter) has a laid back charisma as dark horse contestant J. D. Drew. Hunter Foster (Little Shop of Horrors, Urintown) presents a multi-level character in Benny, the nominal bad guy. David Larson, as the Iraq vet, shines when he belts out “Stronger,” the show’s best ballad, from atop the truck and at the stage lip.
The music, co-written by Anastasio and Green, is a winner if not an ovation-prodder. Performed by an eight-piece band, it’s rooted in a fully authentic blend of blues-rock, country and pop, spiced by violin, mandolin and dobro. Unlike with some other rock musicals, it never feels like the musicians are chamber players dressed up as John Mellencamp for Halloween. Though too many songs open with that faux-slide-guitar lick that’s always used to signal “we’re in the middle of nowhere” in TV commercials, there are no self-conscious genre experiments.
With its mildly sexy, loping groove, mid-tempo opening number “Human Drama Kind of Thing” would fit snugly in a Phish first set. Electric blues tune “Hunt With The Big Dogs” is covered in smoky organ and spicy lead guitar lines. But “My Problem Right There” is the real keeper among the up-songs, as Jacob Ming-Trent’s Ronald McCowan, an overly confident Lothario running on fumes and Snickers, tests the limits of his braggadocio in this instant sing-along.
The story might benefit from picking up the contest midway through, with half as many characters who are more fully realized; perhaps a montage-like opening number could get us there. As written, the narrative focus flitters about, and we get a series of payoffs that don’t really pay off. At least two characters have little to do onstage until suddenly emerging for a featured song…that culminates with them leaving the contest. (The first time, it at least feels like the surprising but logical conclusion to the lyric; the second, it just seems a convenient way to get another body offstage.) When a fallen contestant returns later to root someone else on, it feels arbitrary; if they struck up a bond earlier, I missed it.
That said, the show really crackles in places, when the pieces lying around the whole time assemble into shape. When Benny clashes with his fellow contestants late in the show, it’s a taste of what might have been with a better-articulated sense of rising action. The mostly a cappella “Joy of the Lord” features the players exuberantly banging out rhythms on the truck, with lots of pleasant footwork (musical stager Sergio Trujillo shines here) and a true thrill when the band kicks in, revving in full Gospel mode. Elsewhere, Jon Rua (as Jesus Peña, a would-be veterinarian) does a backwards somersault over the roof of the truck, which the ensemble frequently slides around the stage on hidden rollers.
Though I walked out of the theatre a bit underwhelmed, the show continues to grow on me in retrospect. In the end, it is socially relevant theater—not escapist schmaltz. But I wouldn’t be inspired to put my hand on it for 77 hours.
Hands on a Hardbody is now playing at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Broadway. Get tickets here. Rush tickets ($32 each) are available at the box office two hours before each show. Other discounts are available as well.