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New York Theater

This Is a Cowboy Poem My Daddy Taught Me

This Is a Cowboy Poem My Daddy Taught Me

Katie Bender's wistful and moving new play, in which she also appears, is set in the west Texas desert town of Marfa, which, a program note explains, the playwright passed through in 2004, learning it was the adopted home and creative laboratory of minimalist sculptor Donald Judd, who died in 1994. Throughout This Is a Cowboy Poem My Daddy Taught Me, Bender has a fictionalized version of Judd (the craggy Stephen Payne affecting a folksy twinkle reminiscent of Will Rogers) deliver a series of monologues explaining his creative and social vision as defined by his commitment to building an artistic haven among the dusty, disaffected denizens of Marfa.

Bender also explores the impact of this transplanted patriarch on the intersecting lives of a young woman named Love (Bender), who is retracing the pit stops of her wayward post-hippie mother; a disappointed local named Scrappy (Jesse Presler); and, in flashbacks, Scrappy's bellicose, rifle-toting sister Crystal (Mary Guiteras). Scrappy and Crystal were abandoned by their parents to white-trash squalor and an intense, almost incestuous interdependence.

On Stephanie Tucci's economically designed set, short scenes alternate among three locales: Judd's studio, the bar where Scrappy pours whiskey for Love as they share tales of lost legacies and shattered dreams, and the dilapidated front porch of the siblings' house, littered with dented Diet Coke cans used for target practice and the jetsam of a hardscrabble childhood: broken toys and overwashed underclothes.

Lost parents and the betrayals inherent in moving on from childhood's disillusionments are themes expressed mostly in traditional realistic dialogue, with expressionistic collage elements added as the play builds to its climax under Stephanie Yankwitt's deft direction. The subtle and apt costuming is by Jennifer L. Adams.

An excessive reliance on monologues to express the characters' emotional states reveals the play to be incompletely dramatized, but heartfelt performances engage the audience's empathy. Presler stands out in a workhorse role, his pinched, unshaven face moving from an adolescent's gawky credulity to a young man's numb disbelief in the possibility of his own redemption.

Presented by Rockstead Productions and the Cardinal Group

at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex's Dorothy Strelsin Theatre, 312 W. 36th St., NYC.

May 29-June 15. Thu.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.

(212) 868-4444 or www.smarttix.com.

Casting by Judy Bowman.

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