‘Hands on a Hard Body’ Treads on Broadway
By: Isa Goldberg
Playwright Doug Wright’s ("Grey Gardens") new musical, based on S.R. Bindler’s documentary film follows an annual Texas competition in which the contestant who keeps his/her hand on a pickup truck, the "hard body," for the longest stretch of time, wins.
As an event it sounds merciless and as pointless as inhaling the greatest number of Nathan’s hotdogs or spinning around in circles until you fall down. But the new musical (lyrics by Amanda Green, music by Green and Trey Anastasio) has a heartwarming effect as it telescopes the lives of 10 competitors enduring the sheer banality of keeping a hand on a truck under the remorseless Texas sun.
Here, the competition continues for a full 5 days before all but one person falls off or surrenders to delirium. All the better to get to know them. They’re "All around the truck here, the best souls and the worst."
Indeed, there is destiny to this tale, and it’s all promulgated by capitalist enterprise, the Nissan dealership in Longview, Texas, that sponsors the event. Described as a typical Middle American town, Longview boasts 3 Walmarts and 100 foreclosures per month. Its most celebrated residents are Karen Silkwood, immortalized in the eponymous film, and Matthew McConaughey, the actor. As the source for the musical is a documentary, the information is based on fact.
Still, one is caused to wonder what the real motive is for these contestants, and whether the play warrants a full 2 ½ hours of musical theater. If you consider unemployment an issue, then "Hands on a Hard Body" speaks to motive and to destiny in a big American way. "Try to find a job that pays/waitin around for better days," sings the aging overweight Janice, played by Dale Soules.
Among the most colorful characters, Benny Perkins is the prior year’s winner, but he’s returned this year because his wife ran off with his truck, and along with it, his sense of purpose. Played as a tough surly character by the typically endearing and comedic Hunter Foster, this role demonstrates the actor’s surprising range.
More obviously poignant is David Larsen as the Iraq war vet, who we’re told at the musical’s finale still can’t k
eep a job, but at least, is learning to hold onto his family. And Allison Case as the optimistic UPS worker (the top paying job in town) meets her love holding onto that big red truck. That man, played by Jay Armstrong Johnson, wins the girl and along with it a job at UPS. Together their dream of a 2-week vacation in Vegas expresses working class youthful longing. Their goal is no more the stuff of satire or derision, than the religiosity of the heavy set lady played by Keala Settle, who praises the lord for every moment she holds on.
Together Settle and Jacob Ming-Trent as Ronald McCowan, the first one to drop out of the contest, bring their religious zeal to the gospel style music of the piece. Meanwhile, Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone, the sexy blonde who gets conned by the dealership, delivers spicier numbers with a velvet voice.
Still, the core story follows an unemployed laborer (Keith Carradine) with a broken leg who insists on competing for an award that threatens his health and alienates his wife (Mary Gordon Murray) of 30 years. Ultimately, it’s their ability to hold on to one another that speaks to the musical’s endearing message.
Unfortunately, the music – a mix of country, rock and bluegrass – falls short of inspiring. It could easily be the upbeat elevator music at Walmart. The straightforward lyrics are necessarily simplistic. Susan Hilferty’s costumes are equally to the point of these simple blue-collar folk. And the scenic design (Christine Jones) for this event at a car dealership is appropriately functional.
Directed by Neil Pepe, the musical looses its punch for sustaining itself far too long. Not only is the staging necessarily stagnant, but the individual stories, like threads in a tapestry, fray over time.
"Hands on a Hard Body" plays at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre (256 West 47th St). The performance schedule is Monday – Thursday at 7:30PM, Friday and Saturday at 8PM and Wednesday at 2PM. For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 877-250-2929, go to Ticketmaster.com or stop by the box office.
Photos: Chad Batka