You might say that the Coen Brothers were taking aim at the intricacies and smoky atmospherics of film noire when they created The Big Lebowski. Or you might say they conceived their follow-up to Fargo as a latter-day descent into the underbelly of Los Angeles, designed to show us how far modern life has devolved since the antiheroes and monsters of Chinatown walked the earth.
Such theorizing would be wildly overthinking the whole enterprise - and unfairly accusing it of ambition. As the current Citizens of the Universe stage adaptation shows us, the Coens were more likely in the mood to just have some fun with their screenplay, delivering a dopey flow of mayhem laced with drugs, thugs, weirdoes, wet dreams, femme fatales, and bowling. Masterminded by COTU intergalactic peacekeeper James Cartee, the sloppy, seedy, over-the-top energetic production now at UpStage is nothing if not fun.
With a manic slovenliness, Tom Ollis portrays The Dude, nee Jeff Lebowski. Dude is roughed up by a pair of goons who have mistaken him for the Big Lebowski, a wheelchair-bound tycoon whose wanton wife is in huge debt to a big-time porn peddler. What really sets Dude off isn't the beating - it will be the first in a series - but the fact that one of these muscled creeps peed on his rug.
"That rug really tied the room together," Dude famously grouses. So he goes out to confront the real Lebowski at his mansion - right, a mansion in the loft of UpStage in NoDa. The tycoon is about as friendly as a rattlesnake and quickly dismisses Dude and his hard-luck petition to redress all the wrongs that have been done. Yet we find that Dude is capable of real chutzpah, telling the butler on his way out that Lebowski has granted him the choice of any rug he likes.
You can argue about Dude's taste, but there's no denying that this replacement rug brings the Coen Brothers' plot together. Pretty soon, Dude is involved with the wife, the daughter, a kidnapping, and a huge ransom drop. Yet this isn't quite a full-time job for the formerly lazy lout. He still has time for the occasional White Russian at a nearby watering hole and the necessary hours for commingling with his bowling teammates in Dude's favorite recreation.
That is so fortunate for us, since one of these alley cats is the hyper-intense Vietnam War vet Walter Sobchek, a walking hand grenade rendered by Lamar Wilson with such bellowing, relentless insanity that the perpetually-pissed Ollis seems mild-mannered by comparison. Walter is always ready to stand by Dude when adversity strikes, but he jumps into the breach with such gung-ho bad judgment that he invariably screws things up. Spectacularly.
No strangers to playing heavies, Ollis and Wilson turn out to be a marvelous comedy team. But there are other marvels sprinkled through the cast, including Chris Freeman as a sleazoid rival bowler, Gayle Taggart as our cowgirl narrator, and Dink Nolen as the mean, crippled Lebowski. Mandy Kendall as Lebowski's daughter sounds the nearly serious notes in this romp - wanton, disturbed, and mysterious. Just a little too ready to drop her clothes to be mistaken for your old-time femme fatale. I'm guessing that if your momma is hooked on porn, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.