The spark for Henry's Lunchroom was a quote from Ernest Hemingway stating that American literature begins with Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. However, according to others American literature begins with Hemingway's short story "The Killers." Arguably both views are correct, but the question remains: why mash these two pieces of classic American literature into a single one-act play?
An obvious answer is to pay homage to two of America's greatest writers. But how do the themes of the two stories blend and/or compliment each other? One of the major themes of Huckleberry Finn is the clash of the civilized with the uncivilized. Twain seems to put forth that becoming civilized does not improve society but rather corrupts it. In "The Killers," Hemingway shows us that inexplicable violence is a part of our society. Hemingway seems to be saying, if we can recognize the cruelties in life then we can more easily come to terms with the inevitably horrifying events of life. This can be a part of a child's maturation. In fact, the "end of innocence" is the theme that I felt playwright Dan Evans putting out there with this production. However, the end of innocence is not so much a theme of Huck Finn as it is for Tom Sawyer. So, Evans uses Tom rather than Huck as a character in this play and that's where Evans manages to make these stories work together, because the killers, Al and Max, are perfect symbols of the corruption of civilization and Tom Sawyer is a perfect symbol of loss of innocence.
Evans's adaptation of the two stories is very well thought out and the dialogue, while at times marked by polar opposite juxtaposition, makes excellent use of both texts. Evans certainly captures the mood of each story, most notably that of "The Killers," and creates pockets of details that convey vivid images. Still, I could not help but feel that the overall mood is more that of "The Killers." While Evans does well with blending the themes he does not blend dialogue as well and this may well be no fault of his own but simply due to the fact that the dialogue from these stories is so different. Put simply, I sometimes felt like I was watching the movie Pulp Fiction with Opie from The Andy Griffith Show jammed into it. That had the effect of making Twain's writing come across as a bit hokey when mixed with Hemingway's dialogue. I really don't want to think of Twain in this way.
Evans is also the director and he does a fine job. Al and Max are without a doubt from a different world than the locals that work at the lunchroom. Their acting styles even seem to be a little different from their counterparts'. Some of the Huck Finn characters are presented as somewhat over-the-top, most notably LuLu LoLo as the Widow Douglas, while the killers are cold and grounded in their characterizations. Overall, this worked well for Evans.
The ensemble is strong and they each hold their own in their own ways but it is the killers, Kevin Draine as Al and Joel Nagel as Max, who rise above. Draine is particularly interesting to watch due to his toothy, smarmy slime and creepy body language. Nagel drives the show with his aggressive chatter. No one is given credit for the costumes but the killers' outfits are exactly as I would have pictured them. Great job!
Henry's Lunchroom is definitely worth a look as are many other productions in the Twainathon. Combining canons like this is risky but challenging. That challenge is what drew me to this production and for the sake of this show I hope it draws many others as well.