'Red Ryder' robbed of its drama

The more plays I see, the more I realize how tough it is to convincingly play a madman.

Mark Medoff's 1973 play "When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?" gives us an isolated New Mexico diner of people whiling away a Sunday. The College of Southern Nevada's production, directed by Ernest Hemmings, is on solid ground when we first meet most of the characters.

The young Jason Nino projects a lot of pent-up anger and cowardice as Stephen (aka Red), the cook. There's something about the earnestness of his youthful discontent that makes us like him.

Natascha Negro, as one-half of a just-passing-through couple who stumble into trouble, seems to register everything going on around her. Her face is intriguing to read.

And there's the always reliable John Wennstrom as Lyle, the elderly owner of the neighboring filling station. Wennstrom shows us his character's heart of gold, while making it clear Lyle understands how the real world works. It's a marvel how precise and simple Wennstrom approaches the actor's craft.

Hemmings demonstrates a good feel for the atmosphere and characters. He doesn't push. And, even though his cast differs widely in experience, he elicits honest reactions from all of them. You sense that these people are really talking and listening to one another.

But the play takes a dive with the entrance of the big bad Vietnam vet Teddy. Actor Alex Olson fakes Teddy's neurotic behavior by smothering the role in all kinds of superimposed affectations. (Are crazy people really all that easy to spot?) When he threatens the diners with a gun, you figure this Teddy wouldn't know a .45 from an M-16. It's not just that Olsen can't internalize the role. There's no evidence that Hemmings made much of an attempt to help him.

Olsen's not untalented. He has a boyish charm that he doesn't fake. But he's not yet ready for such a demanding part that thrusts most of the show's weight on his shoulders.

Cindy Frei's set is amusingly period, but Gary Carton's lights fail to take advantage of the potentially magical moments in the script (such as when Teddy dances maniacally around his victims).

As a mood piece, the first act is sprinkled with pleasure. But Olsen and the heavily-handed directed and written second-act rob a dramatically-thin play of its thin layer of drama.

Anthony Del Valle can be reached at DelValle@aol.com. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.