03/28/2013 04:44 pm ET Updated May 28, 2013

Hands on a Hardbody

Don't go to Hands on a Hardbody, the new musical at the Brooks Atkinson imported from a critically praised run in California, expecting titillation (the hardbody is a red pickup truck) or a revelation in contemporary musical scoring. The songs are, with a few exceptions, negligible (i.e., forgettable). But I promise you a better evening than Breakfast at Tiffany's.

The setting is the Floyd King Nissan Dealership in Longview, Texas, where 10 contestants drawn from a hat are living out what's left of the dying American dream in a contest that will redefine their lives. The rule of the game requires all 10 people to keep one gloved hand on the chassis of the $22,000 truck at all times, day after day on the asphalt under a broiling Texas sun, in a marathon few people have the stamina to survive. The prizewinner is the competitor who keeps a hand on the hardbody the longest. It's a challenge to see who gives in or gives out first -- the contestants or the audience. The evening sometimes seems like an endurance test, but with a book by Pulitzer Prize winner Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife, Grey Gardens) before the evening ends, you will get to know every man and woman onstage. I liked them all.

Who will win? Will it be Keith Carradine, heading a big cast by today's economically stressed standards, playing a senior citizen down on his luck who lost his job, pension, life savings and masculine self-confidence after falling off an oil rig. Feverish, addicted to pain killers and held together by pins, he fights sleep, buckling knees and rusty joints to win the only thing left, when all else fails, that can still prove an old Texas longhorn's manhood. Or will it be the tattooed, muscle-bound Marine who went to Afghanistan a 98-pound weakling and came home with his dreams crushed, his mind altered and his hopes dashed? There's a woman with too many mouths to feed, and two young adults with no future who plan to sell the truck and use the money to finance their way out of a dead-end life, and a touching Mexican boy who needs the money for tuition to veterinary school but stands to lose because of racial profiling although he was really born in Laredo, Texas. There's even a cheater in the group -- a sexy blonde who waits tables at the Rib Shack barbecue and breaks the rules with pep pills to stay awake, supplied by the married but over-sexed car dealer. I found myself rooting for them all.

One by one, they tell their stories in text and song: "If you live in the North, you can drive a sedan.. But if you live in Texas and you don't have a truck... Buddy, you're stuck." The highlight in Act One is a raucous gospel number, "I Feel the Joy," by an overweight religious wife and mother touched by the Holy Spirit. Beginning with a low chuckle, she builds to a state of total hysterics, culminating in a rhythmic gospel chant that rocks he stage and stops the show. In Act Two, Mr. Carradine gets the best song in the score, "Used To Be," a disillusioned indictment of the ugly, cookie-cutter litter of Wal-Marts, Pizza Huts, Wendy's and automotive repair shops that litter the American landscape ("It looks the same everywhere you roam... How do you know when you get home?"), and a poignant lament for the character that illuminated the country in the good old days before things changed. Good lyrics by Amanda Green.

Child support, bankruptcy, unemployment, obesity, the death of optimism -- Hands on a Hardbody is an entertainment, but it also examines some of the reasons for cynicism in the rusty, burned-out junkyard that symbolizes hick-town America today. Real contests like the one depicted here (the show is based on a documentary film by the same name) are annual events throughout the country, especially the South. Doug Wright, a native Texan who was born a few miles from Longview, knows the territory, and director Neil Pepe brings it to life perfectly. The car dealership is a canvas of empty-headed, rear-ended despair as authentic as a truck-stop Shoney's. (It takes someone who's been there to depict a Nissan dealership with a picture of Matthew McConaughey hanging in the ladies room. The red truck is a honey. It revolves in a circle, giving all 10 actors an equal opportunity to face the audience. The pop-rock-gospel-country and western songs are not my favorite kind of music. For someone weaned on Rodgers and Hammerstein, I longed for just one song in that sounded like "Oh What a Beautiful Morning." But everything grew on me, and some of them are very appealing.

They make musicals out of anything and everything these days, but this is the first time I've ever seen one about a red pickup truck. It may seem like an odd recommendation, but I left Hands on a Hardbody reminded of Alexandra del Lago in Sweet Bird of Youth when she awakens from a hashish slumber, peers through her glasses at the body she spent the night with, and says "I've seen better... but God knows, I have also seen worse."
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