BWW Review: Country Comes to the City in the melancholy-tinged SALVAGE
Country music is known (and often ridiculed) for its soap opera-like lyrics. Its storytelling often takes listeners on journeys of sadness and despair, and redemption. Tim Alderson's SALVAGE, playing at the Lounge Theatre in Hollywood through January 19, follows those tropes with mostly effective results and hits viewers with a cathartic and emotional impact.
David Atkinson plays Preacher, a down-on-his-luck former preacher and country singer-songwriter who keeps his ghosts at bay by day drinking himself into a stupor at his childhood friend Johnson's (Leonard Earl Howze) bar in the middle of nowhere. One day, Harley (Christopher Fordinal) happens into the pub, recognizing it as the place where legendary country star Floyd Whittaker either killed himself or accidentally choked to death on his own vomit (depending upon whose story you believe). An aspiring singer-songwriter himself, Harley is planning to pawn his guitar, thinking abandoning his music dreams is the responsible thing to do so he can support his wife, Destiny (Nina Herzog), and their unborn baby. As the two musicians, one grizzled and hopeless, the other fresh-faced and hopeful, get to know each other, they realize they each have things to teach the other while facing failings from their own pasts and learning how to utilize what they've learned from those failings going forward.
Alderson's script gives complexity to each of the characters so that they aren't one note, but about two-thirds through a revelation is made that ups the stakes for each of them, and that's when it really goes into cliche country-music territory. It's surprising, but what has been a personal, grounded conversation thus far suddenly becomes melodramatic and doesn't really have the consequences it should considering its weight. While it doesn't negate what comes before, it dampens it, because it feels contrived and thusly doesn't ring true.
The set, with its jukebox, small bar and handful of tables is as intimate as the theater. It's so intimate you can practically smell the beer and the sweat in the tavern that could be in Texas or Oklahoma or West Virginia or California. Not giving the precise location of the story helps make it universal. These are everymen with problems many of us have faced: regrets, concessions, dreams lost, traded, sold. But unlike most of us, they can attempt to process their issues via song (also written by Alderson, with Mark Heard, Pat Terry and Randy Vanwarmer), and they do so in many tunes performed onstage with just their guitars for accompaniment. The songs are beautifully written, both music and lyrics, and both men have fantastic voices. Standouts include Atkinson's "Open Windows" and Herzog's "Outrun the Wind." Audiences will want the original cast recordings.
Both leads have a charismatic presence, Atkinson with a world-weary air and Fordinal with a laidback sexy vibe. Director Damian D. Lewis lets them take their time with their lines, so there's room to breathe between the two characters even as they lock horns. And while the show is mostly downbeat it's not a downer. The writer, director and actors infuse it with energy throughout, and in the end, there is a hopefulness. At least for some of them.
Like some of the best country songs, things aren't wrapped up neatly but our heroes have changed and been changed, and that's further along than they were at the beginning. And sometimes that has to be enough.
SALVAGE runs 100 minutes with no intermission. It shows 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. on Sundays through January 19, 2020 (no performances December 27-29). The Lounge Theatre is located at 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90038. Tickets are $35. Reservations: 323-960-7712 or Onstage411.com/Salvage