Late Night's Bonanza has just the right amount of Brokeback.

A Cowpoke Reach-Around 

Late Night's Bonanza has just the right amount of Brokeback.

Not since Oprah said cattle shouldn't chow on feed made of their brethren have cowboys suffered such a rough time.

There's Brad Paisley bragging that college "was a ball" all over country radio. There's Mr. Wyoming himself, Dick Cheney, shotgunning a septuagenarian lawyer instead of the quail that had been born, bred and released expressly for his killing pleasure. And obviously there's that movie peeking beneath their chaps and Wranglers.

That Brokeback Mountain so angers folks is evidence of America's limitless capacity for denial. Come on, heartland — we know what men do when crammed together in ships and prisons. The effort it takes to pretend that the ranch-hand reach-around hasn't always been common courtesy must tax even those who insist that the Earth is just now creeping up on its 6,000th birthday.

And now we get Kimberly Queen as Ben Cartwright in Bonanza: The Purposely Lost Episode.

I can only hope that the fact that Queen is endlessly delightful in Late Night Theatre's all-female Bonanza burlesque offers consolation to those on the losing side of this here culture war. Queen, made up with swooshing black eyebrows and a cheddar-cheese tan, juts her jaw, rarely blinks, and speaks each line with the self-importance of God dictating commandments. Her Lorne Greene scowl is hilarious, all masculine constipation, and her leaden saunter and hitched-pants posture constitute a sharp critique of Hollywood cowboys. She often announces, "We're Cartwrights!" and then, as noble music swells, strikes a pose as though she's modeling for a state quarter. Queen doesn't just play Ben; she plays Greene playing Ben, and she nails the delusional hubris that led him, John Wayne and hordes of other back-lot palefaces to believe that they were the myths they played.

This being Late Night, she also makes out with her horse, which is just a head on a stick.

Even as it gives cowboys a savaging the Indians never could, Bonanza is fun. Director Missy Koonce, the Bar Natasha impressaria who also ran this show in 1998, seems to have trimmed anything that didn't work, leaving nothing but inspired set pieces. She also digs out performances that are more disciplined than the Late Night norm — unlike at some recent shows, the actors never seem to be giggling at private jokes funnier than what they share with us.

The story concerns a hillbilly family's attempts to kill various Cartwrights. It's more worked out than most Late Night plots, but it's not terribly interesting. What engages are the show's inventions. The production numbers are consistent surprises: a gorgeous "Love Me Tender," a barn-burning "Proud Mary" and — unforgettably — John Michael Montgomery's "Sold" belted by Heather Price decked out as a sheep. A smart scene in which the Cartwrights discuss the iconography of the Western in perfect cultural-studies jargon fizzes in the brain long after the final curtain.

Best of all is how Cartwright cook Hop Sing (improv dynamo Stasha Case, also back from '98) narrates from the set of her cooking show, Wok Around the Clock, dishing out kitchen tips and pausing the action with a remote control. As "the first Eastern in a Western," Case is a revelation — she seems to have more smile than face. Adopting a ridiculous fortune-cookie locution, she chatters directly at the audience from her stove, calling herself "A-Number One Cook Servant" and wringing every drop of laughter out of lines such as "Man who rides stick horse is going to Bangkok." Her interruptions — she stops the show to dispense interesting facts about Bonanza— are funnier than the action itself; she dances (wonderfully), her limbs jutting from her robes at cartoonish right angles and her face letting us know that she's having as much fun as we are.

Like Queen, Case is funny even as her l-mangling characterization makes a point about old Hollywood's goofy, insulting treatment of minorities.

The remaining cast members are excellent. Filling Michael Landon's boots, Jessica Dressler is beaming and stubbled, and she charms whether wooing, moseying or just jawing round the Ponderosa salad bar. Danielle Walker out-sulks actor Pernell Roberts as Adam Cartwright; she's been given an inky thrush of chest hair and a baby-bottle penis, but she would command our attention without them. Rounding out the Cartwrights is Deborah Touchette as Hoss. She's fine, but the character is the show's weakest. Until some Brokeback action toward the end, she's mostly just given fat jokes.

That aside, the show is a joy, easily the best so far from Late Night. From the boots to the petticoats to the wig that perfectly captures Michael Landon's lacquered late-'60s haircut, Georgianna Londre's costumes are marvelous. (And they hide the breasts!) Jon Cupit's inventive set is a Technicolor mash-up of saloon, Chinese restaurant and the original series' wide-open establishing shots, all set inside a giant television. The mountains on Cupit's backdrop have the same melted-butter look as those on the Kansas state seal, which is evidence of how silly we get about the West: The myth looms so grandly that the Kansas Legislature elected to fly a flag depicting the beauty of Colorado.

Or maybe folks just think Kansas has mountains. The same people probably still insist upon cowboy chastity. If anyone shaken by hanky-panky among such icons has read this far, let me give you a piece of advice: Start bracing yourself for Tom Cruise. That one's going to break you.

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