Matthew Ramsay's "The Best Western" attempts to spoof TV and movie Westerns at the same time that it tries to figure out the meaning of life. But like a novice cattle wrangler, it never manages to lasso either.
Granted, the meaning of life -- or, as it's referred to here, the "unknown secret" -- is rather elusive stuff. It's also the stuff of countless college bull sessions.
Maybe that explains why "The Best Western" -- the third offering in the Bowman Ensemble's repertory series at McDonogh School -- frequently resembles a college follies production, overflowing with bit parts and in-jokes.
Now in its second season, the Bowman Ensemble is one of the more impressive summer troupes to surface in the area in some time, but this new script by its resident playwright fails to show the company off to advantage.
For nearly three hours, a gunslinger, a senator and an archaeologist -- supported by a cast of more than 30 (and a dog) -- travel the Wild West on an odyssey to discover the aforementioned unknown secret. Like Odysseus, they encounter a Siren-like tribe of women, not to mention such wonders as a talking cactus and a sci-fi princess called the Sky Monk.
Along the way, the gunslinger, Dale, mows down about half of the cast. But no matter. The script has so little tension, either dramatic or comedic, that seeing the stage littered with corpses has as much impact as watching children play cowboys and Indians.
Director Bryan Clark includes plenty of physical business; at one point Dale shoots three outlaws standing in a row, and they tumble over like dominoes. But for the most part, the script is over-burdened with stage business, as well as with props and set changes. None of these disguise the fact that this picaresque tale could end just about anywhere -- and should end long before it does.
David Caltrider does his best to appear enigmatic and ominous as the gunslinger; Katherine Freedman is plucky as a would-be "Barbary Coast woman" (whatever that means); and Johanna Cox is suitably lascivious as the senator's wanton mistress. But Geoffrey Harris lacks stage presence as a Boston botanist-turned-mountain man.
Maybe if "The Best Western" were shorter, maybe if the actors appeared to take their roles more seriously, maybe if the jokes were funnier than such notions as pioneers chowing down on cucumber sandwiches . . . but dang-it-all, that's too many maybes.
"The Best Western" continues at McDonogh School tomorrow and Friday; call 363-9254.