Romancing the saddle: the Wild West writ large in Oppenheimer play

By Jerry Tallmer

“The Great American Desert”

Closes October 16

Tickets $15

78th Street Theatre Lab

236 West 78th Street

(800-838-3006; www.78thstreettheatrelab.org)

Garrett Ayers was a 9-year-old kid in Kalamazoo, Michigan, when Joel Oppenheimer was dying in New Hampshire in 1988. Gaunt, great-souled Joel Oppenheimer, a poet, playwright, scholar, baseball nut, congenital rebel, Village Voice columnist, denizen of the Lion’s Head and other south-of-14th-Street watering spots, was safely in the big sleep when 23-year-old Garrett Ayers first read “The Great American Desert,” in a 1960s collection of Off-Off-Broadway plays. The year was 2002.

“I was blown away,” says Ayers.

OLD COWBOY: Them goddamn horses ain’t holdin’ up so well. Two, three more days of this, they’re gone. We better either be out of it by then, or hope we find someone to buy some new ones off’n, even a Indian …

GUNNY: Damn this [freakin’] desert anyhow. All this sweat over water, goddamn when I was a boy back home in Illinois they used to talk about the plains. I thought to myself like the Garden of Eden. Now we here, fightin’ from one stinkin’ waterhole to the next, nothing’ but sand and bushes in betwixt …

YOUNG COWBOY: Sheeit! … I talkin’ about [sex], some good old couze, even a little old bit. I get away from it two, three days, especially with a bunch of old goats like you two, I miss it more than when I been out on roundup, or in the hills for maybe six months. The more I get it, the more I want it, seems.

These glorious prototypes—plus a sheriff, a banker, the banker’s lubricious 17-year-old daughter, a whorehouse madam, one of her whores, Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickock, Billy the Kid, and Doc Holliday—all populate Joel Oppenheimer’s 1961 “The Great American Desert” in a Try Try Again production directed by Garrett Ayers.

Wild Bill Hickock is of special interest.

“All right, boys,” he says, anent rumors about his masculinity … “I put it to you — if’n I like my hair shoulder long, and my linen a little fancy and spotless clean, and never did go out with some of those whores … whose business is that ’ceptin’ mine? It’s my affair and none of their own.”

Lovely. We all once upon a time put ourselves under the skin of that lonesome cow puncher who was singing as he was riding: “Git along, little dogie, it’s your misfortune and none of my own.” But only could a Joel Oppenheimer, lover of ladies, father of several children, put it inversely, with poetic heft, into the mouth of Wild Bill Hickock, fastest gun in the West.

Oppenheimer’s one-act opus, with its heightened, mock-romantic, movie-style hard truths about the dirt and grime and profanity and violence of life in the great American West, was an instant classic from the moment it was first done in the 1960s at Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square South. “Layers and layers and layers,” says the young man from Kalamazoo all these years later.

His Try Try Again Theatre Company is aptly named. Garrett Ayers first conducted a reading of this play in his NYU dorm, with an intern of the Wooster Group. He did it again his senior year in his directors’ class at Western Michigan University. Then, upon graduation, he came back to New York – after a month at a Jerzy Grotowski work center in Pontedera, Italy – to take an apartment in Harlem and mount a colorblind production (five blacks, four whites) of “The Great American Desert” on 125th Street.

Ayers, the son of two teachers in Michigan, is white. All but one of the black actors, he says, left the show for whatever reason—“but the show definitely went on for two weeks.” The girl he would marry, Romanian-born Andrea Matei (they met as employees at the W Hotel in Times Square) encouraged him to look for a theater downtown, so here he, and it, is.

Git that sand out of your eyes, pardner.

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