On a Bunbury Theatre set that looks quite like a Churchill Downs box (thanks to Hanna Allgeier’s design and chairs donated by the track itself), a disheveled handicapper, betting slips jutting from his fedora’s hat band, scrutinizes past performances and tip sheets.
It’s a peaceful morning some days before the Kentucky Derby. The celebrities, paparazzi and once-a-year racing fans haven’t yet filled Millionaire’s Row or the infield. And via audible thought bubbles, we know that this fellow is a student of the game — who relishes the peace and quiet.
Pretty quickly his idyllic day goes bad. No sooner does he pick a winner then the track announcer reports it as a late scratch. And again. And again, until his whole card is a mess and we realize this guy has the luck of Job — and far less patience.
It’s a brisk set up for Juergen K. Tossmann’s sparkling new racetrack comedy, “I Bet On the Nag,” which opened last weekend in the Henry Clay Theatre.
Racetrack plays are few. “Guys and Dolls” invokes Damon Runyon’s world of funny, hard-luck tipsters, gangsters, and horseplayers on the make. Fengar Gael’s 2012 drama, “Devil Dog Six,” explores the challenges facing a woman jockey who hopes to get her horse to the Derby (“DD6” hasn’t yet had a Louisville run). And Louisville playwright Larry Muhammad’s fine bio-play, “Jockey Jim,” recounts the improbable career of the great African-American Derby-winning jockey, Jimmy Winkfield (alert: “Jockey Jim” is scheduled at the Henry Clay April 30-May 6).
Tossmann’s comedy fills the gap with uncommon gusto and a couple of great performances, under the direction of Gene Pelfrey. This is by far the tightest, most focused comedy Tossmann has written to date. The cast is small: Tossmann plays the put-upon handicapper, Wheadon Papajohn. Rita Hight plays his femme foil, Vida Prim, who may be clueless about racing but is abundantly savvy about pretty much everything else. (Orin Matte is the voice of the track announcer who plagues poor Papajohn.)
But the economy of means is easily offset by the generous stream of laughs and ideas that start as soon as this odd couple gets out of the gate. The script has all of the Tossmann trademarks. Over the years, he’s penned a marvelous collection of variations on Abbott & Costello’s gag, “Who’s On First?” — and he delivers new twists here, as well as any number of riffs built around hyper-literal uses of language.
“I Bet On the Nag!” feels more effortless and natural than do his earlier plays, some of which were rooted in a Brechtian didacticism. There are plenty of ideas here, but in “Nag” they spring from the characters, rather than the reverse.
And that makes for some memorable theater. Wheadon rings true as a handicapper. He’s a cynical curmudgeon who is inured to seeing his best chances scratched. But he loves the game, loves the lore, loves the myths and superstitions, and loves studying the form as much as he loves watching the horses run — maybe more. And whether you’re an expert handicapper or have never opened a racing form, you’ll enjoy watching him man-splaining racing to Vida. You might even learn a thing or two … from both of them. (At least I did, and I’ve been handicapping for decades.)
Vida — for all her “jabbering” (as Wheadon describes it in one of those audible thought bubbles) — usually has a few strides on our hero. And Rita Hight, whom I’ve seen in a few roles over the years, is giving what might be a career-best performance.
In one passage, where Vida rattles off the many states where she’s lived (I counted 11, ranging across the continent from Louisiana to South Carolina, Utah, Minnesota and beyond), Hight slips easily across dialects with the easy virtuosity of a master comedian. Here — as throughout the play — Pelfrey’s cast tech crew (Gerald Kean, lights; Bob Bush, technical director) have sharpened every detail of the script to a fine point.
Much of the action revolves around a tip Vida receives at the concession stand, where she bumps into a tall, silver-haired man with piercing blue eyes and whose name sounds something like Dwayne. Maybe Dwayne Lupus? She’s not sure. And I’m not saying.
But I will offer a tip: “I’ll Bet On the Nag!” is a sure thing — and a great way to kick of your Derby doings.