The title character of Byrd's Boy, Bruce J. Robinson's new play which opened last night at Primary Stages, is the son of noted polar explorer Richard E. Byrd. The play is supposedly based on events surrounding Byrd's 1988 disappearance, but what it is really about - or what Robinson was trying to say - is anyone's guess.
The play concerns the last few weeks of Byrd's life, prior to the discovery of his body in a Baltimore warehouse. Robinson starts the play in the warehouse, where Byrd (David McCallum) has already made his home. He meets the security guard, Birdie (Myra Lucretia Taylor) who, naturally, wants him to leave. He is able to convince her to let him spend the night.
One night turns into several weeks, and during this time, Byrd and Birdie get to know and understand each other. They celebrate Christmas together and begin to reveal personal details about their lives. We and Birdie slowly learn that Byrd's confusion and dementia is due, in part, to his troubled relationship with his father. Whether or not Birdie also had problems with her father, and the final status of Byrd and Birdie's relationship, are surprises that won't be revealed here.
Robinson seems to intend the play to be driven more by its characters than its plot. Unfortunately neither Byrd nor Birdie is strong enough to make the trip. Both are drawn in very cliched, broad strokes making it difficult to feel for either of them. Byrd, for example, spends most of his onstage time believing he's on a polar expedition, planting flags, befriending penguins, and beating on a box. Birdie's idea of a suitable bedtime story for her son is an over-lengthy dreamlike tale of the beach that has less than covert resonance within the rest of the play itself.
Robinson's reliance on familiar dramatic devices prevents him from establishing a true connection with his characters, and this renders the rest of the play both confusing and predictable. Byrd utters the lines "As thought goes, does instinct come back?" and "Forgetting is comedy; remembering, that's the tragedy" at different points in the script. Though suffering from severe memory problems, he is able to remember surprisingly detailed accounts of his life when it becomes convenient for the plot. When his dementia reaches its peak, he threatens to commit suicide by standing a pile of boxes only a few feet off the floor. And, at one point or another, both Byrd and Birdie seem to be imitating penguins.
Because of all this, it is difficult to take most of the drama in the play seriously. Arthur Casella's direction is earnest, but ultimately ineffective, and does little to make deciphering the play any easier. The actors themselves fare little better; McCallum and Taylor do what they can with their roles, but simply cannot create believable characters with the text they are given. Peter West's inventive lights and Narelle Sisson's strikingly realistic sets are the only true highlights of the evening.
Robinson may have intended Byrd's Boy to be an affectionate look at the relationships children have with their elders in society. In the end, whatever he was trying to accomplish with the tale of Richard E. Byrd, Jr. doesn't come across. The flurry of overdone symbolism, trite dialogue, and forced emotions leave an impression that, perhaps appropriately, is little more than cold.