Cowboys and Dinosaurs

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

The Dinosaur Within, by playwright John Walch at Boston Court in Pasadena, is built around paleontology and coincidence.

Let's start with the Paleontology. What is it? Here's a quick definition: Paleontology is the study of prehistoric life. As a ‘historical science,' it tries to explain the past. Remember that last part because it's going to come in handy in a minute.

The prehistoric life in Walch's play revolves around a macguffin: a set of footprints -- two actually. The first are dinosaur footprint fossils mysteriously stolen out of the Australian outback. The second were left by a Hollywood starlet in the sidewalk in front of the Chinese Theater. The cast of characters linked to both are a trio of estranged child/parent pairs. There's the aging Hollywood starlet whose career ended shortly after the cement dried. Her disgruntled quitter of a daughter. There's an aboriginal elder and his ex-pat son who's struggling to break into the movies. And finally, a 12-year- old aspiring paleontologist and his grieving, writer father.

The coincidence? Well, let's just say everyone's connected. The grieving father just happened to write an article about the missing footprints. Which just happened to be connected to the Aboriginal bushmen. Whose son just happens to run into the daughter of the film star. Who (would you believe it?) just happens to have studied journalism with the grieving father.

At the top of the play, the coincidences are fun and the scope seems thrilling -- kind of like the beginning of a Robert Altman film. The problem is playwright Walch quickly gets caught under the weight of his own structure. You can feel him setting up the next coincidence with almost every line.

Remember that paleontology definition: it's about the past -- fossils? Rather than experimenting with his characters, Walch's play becomes one big archeology dig into the characters' pasts. Maybe that's a good way to dig up bones, but it's not a path to developing good drama.

Across town in Culver City, the Austin-based ensemble company Rude Mechs opened their new musical I've Never Been So Happy at the Kirk Douglas Theater.

The Rude Mechs' work feels like a bit of a dare -- or maybe a late night bet made by a group of witty, somewhat crazy, definitely brave and unquestionably talented actors. You can almost imagine the 3am conversation:

"I bet you can't make a musical about Texas with a song by a pair of dogs!"

"Oh yeah? I'll see your dachshund duet and raise you a heavy metal anthem sung by a mountain lion!"

"You're on!"

If "Don't Mess with Texas" is your motto, or you believe that the American musical is a sacred art form that should never be violated, you'll probably want to pass on this one. If on the other hand, you want to grab a bunch of friends put on an ironic cowboy hat and laugh at some brilliantly executed, cheap dead-pan humor, make sure you get to the Kirk Douglas Theater in the next two weeks. I dare ya.

The Rude Mechs' I've Never Been So Happy plays at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City through October 23.

John Walch's The Dinosaur Within plays at the Boston Court Theatre in Pasadena through November 6.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Dinosaur running time: 2:30 minutes (with a 15 minute intermission)
I've Never Been So Happy running time: 2:15 (with a 30 minute intermission)

Banner image: (L to R) Paul Soileau, Jason Liebrecht and Jenny Larson in Rude Mechs' I've Never Been So Happy. Photo by Bret Brookshire