Deeper Digging Needed

Gary Austin's one-man Oil is no character gusher.

Oil begins with an unidentified, cowboy-hatted oilman leaning back in a chair and justifying drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The speech is droll -- the work is so environmentally sound, the oilman tells us, that the caribou sidle up to the pipelines to keep warm -- and the impersonation hilarious. The oilman is Gary Austin, creator of this one-man show and founder of the famed Los Angeles improvisation group the Groundlings. He next gives us a vignette of himself as a kid in Texas, where his dad was a faithful employee of Halliburton, switching voices to become now his father, now his child self as they rattle along in a truck and discuss whether Gary can be trusted to have a requested soft drink without needing to pee. Eventually, father and son stop for chicken-fried steak. That's followed by a song about chicken-fried steak composed by the seven-year-old Gary and sung by the adult version along with country singer and musician Matt Cartsonis.

So far, so good. Austin is a skilled and appealing performer, and he's got lots of good material: his personal story of growing up in an oil camp, the lives and thoughts of his parents, pithy insights into the politics of oil, and observations about how the substance has shaped the presidency of George W. Bush. He knows a lot about Halliburton's practices -- then and now -- and the lives of the company's workers. Austin senior maintains that Halliburton workers don't need a union, but son Gary has noticed a lot of disquieting things, including the segregation of black workers into menial jobs. He's also heard about the derrick hand killed in the line of work, a mercenary soldier who didn't understand that "oil work requires more finesse than war."

There are interesting historical details. During the 1918 flu epidemic, for example, a local whorehouse was converted to a hospital, with the prostitutes serving as nurses. And Oil also contains some chilling descriptions of contemporary realities. Austin gives a concise description of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, by which fluid is pumped into a well to create a fracture and force oil to the surface. This fluid includes several dangerous chemicals that contaminate groundwater. We learn from Austin that Halliburton has led the effort to exempt fracking from environmental regulation, and also such fascinating details as the various materials used to stop up the wells: defective dollar bills, for example, or the corpses of hens that perished on factory farms.

But intriguing as the pieces may be, the whole doesn't hang together. You'd like to learn more about Austin's parents and the texture of his life as a child, but you never do. The political thoughts seem like interpolations, rather than rising from the facts of his autobiography. It's hard to find a sequence to the ideas and anecdotes; they don't even seem to be chronologically arranged, and the presentation has no forward momentum. You feel it could continue indefinitely or stop almost anywhere. The Ku Klux Klan makes an ap-pearance, filling the pews of the local church early in the twentieth century, then drops out of sight before we've learned anything of the organization's actions or influence. Financial necessity forces Austin's father out of retirement, but I couldn't figure out whether this was caused by lack of planning, chance or a miserly retirement package from Halliburton. It didn't help that Austin periodically forgot his lines on the night I attended, but that particular kink may have been worked out by now.

Oddly, although Austin teaches acting and improvisation, the characters in Oil often feel generic. His mother is a bit of a caricature, and while his father is more real, he still lacks specificity.

Austin knows how to hold a stage; there are some wonderful satirical moments, and Cartsonis contributes a couple of terrific cowboy songs. If the material were cut by 30 minutes and the focus sharpened, Oil would be fine entertainment.

 
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