And believe it or not, it starts with a showstopping joke: “My name’s Bill W., and I’m an alcoholic.” What? Your sides aren’t exactly splitting? Maybe you had to be there. As uttered by Robert Krakovski, playing one-time stockbroker and AA co-founder Bill Wilson, that line elicited enough laughter and applause at the performance I attended to momentarily make me wonder whether I’d wandered into the wrong venue. Standing with his feet askance, wearing a slyly toothy smile, and showing a glint of controlling knowingness in his eyes, Krakovski certainly looked more like a stand-up comedian than a man beginning a heartfelt confession. But how much can you tell in a play’s first five seconds? Maybe it was just this particular audience? Surely the show would get back on track and prove this reaction was an unintended aberration?
Nope. As directed by Rick Lombardo, producing artistic director of the Waterton, Massachusetts, New Repertory Theatre, where this production got its start, Bill W. and Dr. Bob is a neo-vaudevillian freak show that demonstrates why vaudeville keeled over in the first place. What should be the serious story of Bill and Dr. Bob Smith (Patrick Husted) hitting rock bottom, finding each other by chance, and developing the foundations of AA simply to survive is treated so hammily that Friday performances should probably be canceled during Lent.
While there’s nothing wrong with threading humor through a topic of this severity, Lombardo and his actors spend most of the evening bordering dangerously on the uncouth and outright distasteful, treating potentially shattering depictions of drunkenness into recreations of I Love Lucy’s Vitameatavegamin episode. As the play begins in 1925, with Bill and his wife Lois (Rachel Harker) facing the final days of Bill’s pre-Crash benders, it’s entirely possible Lombardo believed an enforcement of pastry-puffy mid-1920s acting styles would most effectively leaven the midnight-dark mood. And with a pianist (Ray Kennedy) positioned permanently upstage, and a couple of scene changes covered by songs sung by members of the company, it really does seem old-fashioned entertainment is what Lombardo had in mind.
But most of what’s intended to be funny isn’t - this material doesn’t lend itself naturally to the broad comedy Lombardo has encouraged, at least with these performers. Only Harker finds some sympathy in her token conflicted wife, but her overly hairsprayed stiffness makes even that hard to assimilate. As the other neglected spouse, Anne Smith, Kathleen Doyle is all judgmental, patrician stuffiness, more appropriate for a monsterly Oscar Wilde matron. The gentle, genial Krakovski is only miscast as the violent, self-absorbed Bill; but Husted is flat-out embarrassing, especially when playing inebriated much the way Alan Alda might play George M. Cohan in a remake of Yankee Doodle Dandy. Marc Carver and Deanna Dunmyer play an endless series of ensemble roles with an endless series of funny voices that are not endlessly funny.
To Bergman and Surrey’s credit, their own work is relatively restrained, making decent (if not wholly successful) attempts to flesh out characters who could be little more than stumbling symbols of the dangers of excess. Sure, there are some howlers (“We need to find ourselves a steady supply of more reliable alcoholics”) and one too many improbabilities (do we need to see the wives’ first, unofficial Al-Anon meeting?), but the script doesn’t lack for honesty, sensitivity, and a sincere desire to improve others’ lives.
None of that, however, has survived the trip to the stage, and the evening resulting from the intervention of Lombardo and his cast suggests that a production this laughable is worse than none at all. The best that can be said of Bill W. and Dr. Bob is that it generally stops just short of insulting the real people suffering from the real problems it’s trying to illuminate. Any theatreholics in the audience, however, don’t get off quite so easily.
Bill W. and Dr. Bob