Can You Handle the Taste?

Calamity is brewing on the eve of country superstar Justin Spears’ (David Lind) wedding. Justin is in a prankish, gun-toting kind of mood. His bride-to-be is rightfully concerned about his whereabouts. His business partners are about to be given the shaft. Most importantly, his weed smoking, pill craving, alcoholic uncle Jim (Mark Roberts) is en route with a cooler of Dr. Pepper, three joints and an inflatable sex doll. The party starts a little too quickly for the old man and a diabetic seizure leaves Jim stranded in a fancy hotel suite. When left alone, his jubilation turns to nostalgia and morose contemplation until his solitude is interrupted by the arrival of Sharon, (Sarah Lemp), Justin’s embittered ex-financée.

Mark Roberts is one talented dude. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing two of his previous plays, Rantoul and Die and Enter at Forest Lawn. New Country combines the sincerity of the former with the vulgarity of the latter. The fat jokes and sex gags that start off the show gradually give way to a poetic morbidity. Uncle Jim initially seems no more than a hard partying hillbilly until he confesses his deep sense of failure and loss, spouting lines like, “The pearly smile is now a mouth full of chipped, cracked, yellow brown bitin’ bones.” New Country begins by feeling like the preamble to a wild celebration before abruptly feeling like the fun ended long ago.

Mr. Roberts’ performance as Jim nearly outshines his writing. Despite Jim’s oversized personality, he manages to make him feel plucked from real life. He imbues him with an authenticity that makes him both a striking dramatic figure and the kind of guy you might want to hang out with. And Mr. Roberts is aided by an impeccable cast. Jared Culverhouse and Malcolm Madera play Justin’s business partners with an appropriately no-nonsense approach to delivering comedic lines. Ms. Lemp is excellent, succeeding with with a combination of toughness, torment and benevolence. Her rendition of Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway” turns the lyrics into something encouraging, finding glimmers of hope in the ruination brought on by what Jim would call “the random, hateful misfortunes of life.” It is a fitting conclusion to a frequently funny and occasionally sweet look at the damage passing years inflicts on artistic souls at both ends of the success spectrum.

New Country runs through June 20th at the Cherry Lane Theatre.  38 Commerce Street  New York, NY.  1 hour 15 minutes.  No intermission.

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Ben Botwick

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