Sunday, June 6, 2021

583. WHEN YOU COMIN' BACK, RED RYDER? From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

James Kiernan, Robyn Goodman, Bradford Dourif, Elizabeth Sturges, Joe Jamrog, Kristen Van Buren, Addison Powell, Kevin Conway (front). (Photos: R.E. Wasserman.)

WHEN YOU COMIN’ BACK, RED RYDER? [Drama/Crime/Drugs/Restaurant] A: Mark Medoff; D: Kenneth Frankel; S: Bill Stabile; C: Penny Davis; L: Cheryl Thacker; P: Elliott Martin in the Circle Repertory Theatre Production; T: Eastside Playhouse (OB); 11/04/73-11/25/73 (26); 12/6/73-8/25/74 (302): total: 328

Kevin Conway, Kristen Van Buren.

Following a successful month’s run at the Circle Rep, Mark Medoff’s melodrama moved elsewhere for a commercial production where, with the same cast, it ran for the better part of a year. Reminiscent of Robert E. Sherwood’s Depression-era The Petrified Forest, the play is set in a New Mexico diner on a Sunday morning where the customers and employees are interrupted by a violent, longhaired, young dope runner and college dropout named Teddy (Kevin Conway). With his girlfriend Cheryl (Kristen Van Buren) has to remain there until his car, packed with drugs, is repaired at the adjoining service station.

Bradford Dourif, Kevin Conway.

Before long, this hippie hoodlum is bullying and plaguing everyone (both physically and with his dark sense of humor), stripping them of their illusions, often at the point of his handgun. The others include Stephen (Bradford [Brad] Dourif), a skinny, tattooed employee nicknamed “Red Ryder,” who swaggers about but is really a coward; a limping, old, garage owner, Lyle (Addison Powell); a married couple of New Yorkers, Clarice (Robyn Goodman) and Richard (James Kiernan); and Angel (Elizabeth Sturges), the fat countergirl who pines for Stephen.

The theme concerns the attempts of Teddy to strip bare the deceptive fa├žades of America’s middle-class, symbolizing what Harold Clurman called “the disenchanted young who spit out their education and take their extravagant adventures to the point of crime.” Despite quibbles over Medoff’s purposes, the critics were in thrall to the intense, beautifully acted and designed drama. “[Y]our attention is held throughout,” observed John Simon, who was gripped by the truthfulness of the characters. Clive Barnes thought it “a fascinating and commanding play. . . . Mr. Medoff writes superbly. . . . [The play] suggests a chilling picture of a lonely, lost America. . . . [I]t has all the genuine suspense of the thrillers it is in effect echoing.”

Walter Kerr was less enthused because to him the work was “an uneasy and often irritating blur of the quasi-symbolic and the unfinished case history.” He did not believe the character of Teddy and found the dramatist guilty of “creating arbitrary suspense.”

Kenneth Frankel’s tight, atmospheric staging was abetted by an ensemble of terrific performances, Kevin Conway, for example, giving “the role of Teddy all the brash, steely, disconcerting shrewdness it demands,” as Edith Oliver described it. (At one point in the run, playwright Medoff himself briefly replaced Conway.)

When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? won an OBIE for Distinguished Play, Medoff was recognized by the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Playwright, Conway and Sturges earned their own OBIEs for Distinguished Performance, while also snaring Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Performance.

A film version, directed by Milton Katselas, appeared in 1979.

Do you enjoy Theatre’s Leiter Side? As you may know, since New York’s theatres were forced into hibernation by Covid-19, this blog has provided daily posts on the hundreds of shows that opened in the city, Off and on Broadway, between 1970 and 1975. These have been drawn from an unpublished manuscript that would have been part of my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage series, which covers every show, of every type, from 1920 through 1950. Unfortunately, the publisher, Greenwood Press, decided it was too expensive to continue the project beyond 1950.

Before I began offering these 1970-1975 entries, however, Theatre’s Leiter Side posted over 1,600 of my actual reviews for shows from 2012 through 2020. The first two years of that experience were published in separate volumes for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 (the latter split into two volumes). The 2012-2013 edition also includes a memoir in which I describe how, when I was 72, I used the opportunity of suddenly being granted free access to every New York show to begin writing reviews of everything I saw. Interested readers can find these collections on Amazon.com by clicking here. 

Next up: Where Do We Go from Here?