(This column on the play Sonny’s Last Shot , now being adapted by HBO as God Save Texas , appeared Jan. 11, 2005.)
A naive kid new to the Texas Legislature tries to change Austin's money-grubbing ways.
But he gets chewed up by a shark of a lobbyist, then finally swept away to break quorum and hide out at the Alamo Court motel.
The story could have come off the pages of this newspaper two years ago, or 25. Or any day now, since the Legislature is back for another round of laws and margaritas, not always in that order.
Actually, the story came from a writer for The New Yorker five years ago, before Albuquerque and Ardmore became extensions of the Texas Capitol.
The story's hero, make-believe state Rep. Sonny Lamb, R-Marfa, is also back in town at center stage of a comedy almost as funny as the Texas Legislature, Sonny's Last Shot.
In the play, beginning a month-long run at a theater four blocks from the Capitol, a well-heeled lobbyist preys upon idealistic lawmakers. A crusty House Speaker presides with equal parts bluff and bluster. A preachy speaker pro tem is out to rid Texas of “deviates” and “perversion.”
It could pass for a documentary.
In yet another touch of realism, the governor is invisible.
Nor does anyone even seem to particularly care about him.
Lobbyist L.D. Sparks — played by G.W. Bailey, once a semiregular on M*A*S*H — is a busy man by Austin standards, representing liquor clients, insurance companies and tort lawyers, all while narrating the show.
He welcomes the crowd to see “one of the awfulest acts known to man — making the laws of Texas.”
By show's end, he has killed Lamb's campaign-reform bill and nearly killed his marriage, manipulated a new woman lawmaker from Houston into a supine compromise and shared a round of near-naked golf and many rounds of drinks with House Speaker “Big Bob” Bigbee.
In a scene written by Lawrence Wright of The New Yorker years before Texas Democrats made their real-life 2003 quorum break from the Capitol, young Lamb takes a principled stand and abandons his fellow Republicans to join the fleeing Democrats.
“Does life imitate art, or does art imitate life?” asked Bailey 60, of Houston, a convincing lobbyist who learned the lingo from friend and former state Sen. Carl Parker.
“There's never been a session of the Legislature exactly like this. But it's awfully close.”
Wright, 57, of Austin, a former Texas Monthly writer, tried to sell the script to Hollywood five years ago as a TV movie or series.
HBO was interested, he said Sunday. But to TV executives, the characters and sideshows of your typical Texas Legislature “struck them as a little unrealistic.”
So he took out the scene about the Longview Republican who got himself shot to gain sympathy. (True.)
Wright also moved the fleeing Democrats from the Alamo to the Alamo Court motel, represented in flashing Austin neon along with Guero's Taco Bar and the Broken Spoke dance hall.
And Wright took out the scene about former House Speaker Gib Lewis of Fort Worth, who once introduced a visiting group of Texans in wheelchairs and then said, “Now, will y’all stand and be recognized?”
Our Gibber is a character in the play, although not as House speaker.
“Big Bob” Bigbee is a combination of the late Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock and former Speaker Pete Laney, who encouraged Wright. Gib returns in spirit as state Rep. Carl Kimball, R-Mineola, an affable and handsome fellow.
Former Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, R-Burleson, is also easily recognized as the inspiration for state Rep. Lurleen Klump, R-Plano, whose bill would ban all gay and lesbian Texans from teaching school, practicing medicine, driving a cab or working anywhere in the presence of children.
That's the bill in the play that sends Democrats racing for the exits, in a prescient scene that predicted a quorum break before Austin felt the hand of Tom DeLay.
I won't give away the whole plot.
I'll just say that young Sonny Lamb — played by Will Wallace — joins the quorum break and gets into more than a motel room.
You can find out more about the Marfa Republican and his platform on his mock Texas House Web page, www.sonnyslastshot.com.
The cast includes former state Sen. Hector Uribe, once a statewide Democratic candidate for railroad commissioner. The original cast in an earlier Austin version starred Dan Gattis of Georgetown, now serving in the Texas House.
The director is Marco Perella, remembered in Fort Worth for In the West, a play based on the 1985 Richard Avedon photo exhibit at the Amon Carter Museum.
Wright said Sonny's Last Shot is the kind of political farce that could easily play anywhere, from Sacramento or Baton Rouge to network TV.
“Texas politics has been an object of fascination for this country for a long time,” he said. “The play makes fun of Texas politics. But it also honors the work these people do here, and the process.”
The play runs until Feb. 5. Parents are cautioned: It has adult themes.
At $22 a ticket, it's more expensive than the free show down Congress Avenue.
But much less messy.