Written by Pulitzer-winning playwright Marsha Norman, The Holdup is a small, charming piece about the myth of the Old West -- or rather, the passing of that myth -- that comprises equal parts humor and melancholy. The play is set in 1914, in the high plains of New Mexico. It opens in darkness, as we hear the sad voice of someone preparing to shoot an ailing horse. Then there's another voice: someone making his way to the safety of a cook shack, but afraid of a large coyote that's dogging his steps.
The second speaker is Archie Tucker, a seventeen-year-old born into the wrong time and place. In the midst of the untrammeled West, he's a timid being who hates violence. The date is telling, though. For much of the world, 1914 was a watershed year, the end of an era. Young Archie might be more in tune with his times than he knows.
Archie's brother, Henry, is an inarticulate bully, an avid reader of books about famous outlaws. He's hectoring his brother when one of these lawbreakers intrudes in the flesh. Tall, laconic, fast on the draw, this man -- dubbed "the Outlaw" -- might be Tom McCarty, whose last known bank robbery took place in Delta in 1893. Henry, awestruck, will do anything to gain this man's approval. And then there's Lily, a prostitute-turned-hotel-owner who has always loved the Outlaw and has driven to this remote spot to reunite with him.
The funniest and most resonant scene occurs when the Outlaw has swallowed poison, and the others are trying to help him walk it off. Imagine...oh, say, John Wayne, James Coburn or Clint Eastwood as comically helpless as a toddler, yet sputtering now and then with impotent rage. It's a priceless image -- and fleshed out in an excellent performance by Dan Mundell. Matt Zambrano's out-of-touch Archie is believable and appealing, if a little too one-note. Jude Moran is a sulky, explosive Henry, and Stephanie Jones is strong as Lily, though I'd like to have seen more variety in the performance -- even if it isn't in the script. Which, incidentally, could use a bit of pruning. Still, The Holdup, which runs through February 18 at the Denver Victorian Playhouse, is entertaining theater.