“Hillbilly comedy” Out On Fried Meat Ridge Road has gained such success at LA’s Pacific Resident Theater that it has spawned two sequels, but it’s perhaps a risk to bring it to London without an audience’s local knowledge of state stereotypes and American references. Yet for every mention of Mountain Dew or prog rock bands, there is a dose of warmth and farce that give this show universal appeal.
Down on his luck, Mitchell (Robert Moloney) finds himself without much choice but to room with J.D. (Keith Stevenson, who also wrote the script) – who may or may not be the son of the son of God. Soon the full absurdity of the living arrangement becomes apparent, as a rag-tag collection of neighbours bring their problems to the ever-patient J.D.’s door. From Marlene the meth addict, to Flip the racist motel owner, to Tommy the gun-toting adulterer – the lovable J.D. can’t help but greet them all with kindness and patience. It’s this mixture of good-heartedness and sheer absurdity that lends this piece such a warm comedic focus, even as the other characters shout, swear and belittle each other.
While the physical comedy of the climactic dance scene is actually a little underwhelming, what really works here is Stevenson’s deftly assembled script, which blends stereotypically “hillbilly” dialogue with characters who understand Latin, analyse poetry and use a shopping trip to buy a Walt Whitman collection as an alibi for infidelity. He’s not the first writer to blend the high-brow and the low-brow for comedic effect, but it’s done with so much panache and ease that there is a wonderful freshness to the script.
The strongest scenes come from the interactions between Stevenson as J.D. and Moloney as the hapless and out-of-his-depth Mitchell. They’re ultimate odd couple: seeing Mitchell try to negotiate these unexpected scenarios is hysterical, while J.D.’s kindness is genuinely touching. Melanie Gray also stands out as Marlene, reaching beneath the surface of a shrieking mess of a woman to build a rounded character in this short piece. A mention must also go to designer Simon Scullion for his wonderful set, which recreates the West Virginia motel room in exquisite detail.
At just over an hour, the play’s narrative is a simple one – yet it works best that way, and Tommy’s stand-off with the sheriff feels like a misplaced attempt to add a meaty plot point that the show simply doesn’t need. It works most effectively as an ensemble character piece, presenting this motley crew of misfits with a generous heap of affection amongst the hilarity and absurdity.