Colorful characters having colorful adventures while traveling: That's the substance of the picaresque novel. The genre dates to Tom Jones, Don Quixote and even earlier books, and it survives in movies like Easy Rider and Midnight Run.
T Bone 'N' Weasel, which runs at Rep Stage through Oct. 9, fits comfortably into the picaresque tradition.
The play follows a couple of petty criminals as they tour the back roads of the South, sometimes on wheels, sometimes on foot.
They run into a variety of people, most of them neither friendly nor helpful.
The adventures are imaginative and amusing, but playwright Jon Klein's focus is on the personalities of the two men and their relationship.
T Bone is cynical and street-smart, and Weasel is illiterate and gullible, a romantic and a dreamer. The practical, goal-oriented T Bone is naturally the leader.
The two men squabble, but they are bonded. One uncomfortable fact crops up now and then, though: T Bone is black, and Weasel is white. Society gives Weasel subtle preferences, and life treats him a little better than it treats his friend.
Joseph A. Mills III is dead on target as T Bone and gives the character a clear-eyed realism and perfect mixture of resignation and determination.
Timothy A. Pabon makes an endearing Weasel. His Southern accent, however, swallows up too many of his lines.
The people the men meet on their travels - nine in all, including one woman - are all played by Peter Wray.
In a breathless series of costume and makeup changes, Wray gives a fine display of versatile comic acting.
As Act I begins, T Bone is driving Weasel away from prison. They decide to rob a country storekeeper to get some money, but the attempt quickly turns to farce and ends humiliatingly when their car won't start.
That failure is typical of what is to follow. In quick succession, the men meet a hardheaded used-car dealer who cheats them, a crazy preacher who robs them at gunpoint, a homeless man (Weasel cons him out of his bed in a shelter, but he turns up later in surprising circumstances), a woman who gives them jobs on her farm and makes sexual demands of Weasel, a small-town cop who bilks them out of some loot, a political candidate who uses them to build his image, and a prison visitor.
One final character, a terrified derelict, causes a rift between T Bone and Weasel and brings the play to its climax.
T Bone soon goes to jail, and Weasel goes to work as a bricklayer. He is a respectable wage-earner with a roof over his head.
T Bone serves his time, and Weasel gets him a job laying tile. The derelict is hanging around the construction site and T Bone wants to help him, but Weasel disapproves of charity.
"You'll only encourage him," he says.
Weasel identifies with the establishment now. "I work," he declares proudly, repeating the phrase like a mantra.
T Bone treasures his individuality and freedom. He does not want the regimentation and boredom of a steady job, and he is willing to pay the price of being homeless and broke.
It looks as if the partnership is at an end, but playwright Klein comes up with a satisfying conclusion.
Klein's dialogue is consistently funny, and he flavors the play with comic situations that occasionally escalate into slapstick. During a beach scene, for example, Weasel puts on his pants and discovers a crab in them. (Did Klein, by any chance, see a Laurel and Hardy two-reeler called Liberty?)
Jackson Phippin's imaginative direction makes good use of Smith Theatre's revolving stage to give the impression of the two men traveling.
Set designer Richard Montgomery reinforces the illusion. As the stage turns, the audience seems to be passing road signs, discarded junk and piles of construction material. Looming in the background is a dreary Southern landscape and a montage of nondescript images.
The surroundings are bleak, and so are the lives of T Bone and Weasel. But as Klein shows, they have a spirit that keeps them going, and they have each other.
Rep Stage presents T Bone N Weasel, by Jon Klein, at 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 9, at Smith Theatre at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Reservations: 410-772-4900 or www.howardcc.edu/repstage.