‘T-Bone ‘n’ Weasel:’ High comic ambition on a low budget

Watching Quixotic Theatre’s “T-Bone ‘n’ Weasel” Thursday at Studio 2012, I couldn’t help but think of the early days of Carolina Actors Studio Theatre.

The show took place a few blocks from CAST’s old haunts on Clement Avenue, in a little building with a gravel parking area. CAST stalwart J.R. Adduci took one of the two leads. Jon Klein’s comedy appeared at the Humana Festival held annually by Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, where CAST found much of its material.

And like CAST during its humblest beginnings, Quixotic’s third production suggests it could become a company to remember.

If this title sounds familiar, perhaps you saw the 1992 TV movie with Gregory Hines and Christopher Lloyd. (Klein wrote the play six years earlier.) The film had different actors in each role; the stage version, in the truest off-off-Broadway tradition, uses one actor each as T-Bone and Weasel and one as everyone else, from a smarmy politician to an oversexed trollop.

Adduci plays Weasel, the dimmer and sweeter (and paler) of two ex-convicts traversing South Carolina in a stolen Buick, trying to puzzle out their futures. Brandon Wallace, returning to theater after a 10-year hiatus, plays T-Bone, whose dark skin has left him with a darker outlook after enduring racism all his life.

They encounter a host of South Carolinians, all played by Matt Kenyon: a venal junkyard owner, a clueless convenience store clerk, a mad preacher in a ravine under an overpass, a contemptuous cop on the take. Klein doesn’t make the title characters more moral or thoughtful than people they meet, just more likable.

By the end, we see not only that T-Bone and Weasel need each other but that they form one complete person together: pragmatic yet naive, alert yet dreamy, wary yet amiable. Where T-Bone has good reason to interpret mistreatment as racism, Weasel accepts it as perennial bad luck. (He’s so innocent he doesn’t think about skin color at all.)

Adduci and especially Wallace were afraid of overwhelming the audience in the small space opening night, so they weren’t always audible in Act 1. They found the right vocal dynamics by intermission, and director Sean Kimbro had helpful ideas: He sent them roaming all over the room and positioned them in front of rear projections that made locales “real” despite minimal props.

Quixotic founders Jennifer Quigley and Kimbro did most things on this show: She handled publicity, chose props and costumes and even sold concessions, while he did sound and lighting design. (Technical director Jack Hargrove oversaw a small crew.)

As I recall, CAST started in the same “let’s whip up a show” vein two decades ago. Charlotte’s always better off when theater folks give into that impulse.