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Bobbie Clearly

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 3, 2018

Constance Shulman
Photo by Joan Marcus

Everyone likes heartwarming stories about a prodigal son or daughter who leaves home after a falling-out, then later repents and returns to find forgiveness and welcoming arms at every turn. As it happens, however, not everything can be forgiven, and going home again turns out to be one huge mistake. Case in point: Alex Lubischer's Bobbie Clearly, a sprawling play about the impact of a murder on a small Midwestern town, which opened tonight in an awkward mix of satire and sad reflection at Roundabout's Black Box Theatre.

Having lived for many years in the region of the country depicted in the play, I was struck by how well Lubischer has captured the community spirit and the commitment to one another that occurs when you grow up knowing absolutely everyone in a place as small as the one identified here as Milton, Nebraska, with a population of fewer than 1,000. The 11 characters in the play are bound together even more tightly because of a murder that took place in a cornfield, in which the troubled title character (a violent bully from the get-go, we are told) killed a girl named Casey when both were young teenagers. We never find out much more about the murder itself, except that Casey's brother Eddie was a terrified witness, and that Bobbie himself was quickly arrested and served a 10-year sentence before being released. And guess who is coming home.

There are basically two threads to the plot, the more effective one being the revelations about Bobbie (Ethan Dubin) and how the residents, including the dead girl's family, are handling things. We find out from the town's only police officer, Darla (Constance Shulman, giving a most honest and tender performance) that Bobbie was always a troubled and troublesome boy. This was true even when she first came into contact with him. He was in second grade then, and she was teaching an after-school class to prepare the children for their first communion. She describes an incident in which Bobbie follows Eddie (Tyler Lea) into the bathroom and beats him up for the shucks of it. Darla takes Bobbie under her wing and tries to set him straight, and later, another of the residents, Derek (JD Taylor), takes him on in the role of a "Big Brother." But neither of them has much of an impact, and Bobbie continues to be a serious problem until that fateful day when, at the age of 14, he kills Casey.

In the aftermath, with Bobbie safely locked up, the townspeople get together to put on a talent show as a tribute to Casey. Everyone likes it so much that before you know it, the show, called "Milton's Got Talent," grows into an annual fund-raising event for a foundation they establish in Casey's name. We get to know most of the folks through interviews and through the talent show that takes place in a church basement the size of the performance space where we are sitting on one of the folding chairs. "This has really made an impact, you know," says Casey's mother Jane (Crystal Finn), while her ex-husband Stanley (Christopher Innvar) is demonstrating for us, in uncomfortably graphic detail, how to eviscerate a slaughtered deer.

Along with Stanley's demo, the talents on display (some dancing, some singing, some readings) are not of the highest caliber, but they do come from the heart, and we should be expected to respect that. Yet either the playwright or the director, Will Davis, has incorporated a tone of parody that unnecessarily pulls us away from what we should be thinking about. That is, how will everyone react when they are informed that Bobbie, now in his twenties and a free man, is returning to live among them? As Bobbie puts it in a letter he has written to Darla that serves as the closing moment of Act I, "Everyone will be so surprised."

The rest of the two hour and twenty minute play (which includes two intermissions) deals with Bobbie's return, the mixed reception he receives, and his insistence on making amends by performing in the talent show himself. And what a bizarre performance that turns out to be!

The hodgepodge of darkish humor and authentically dark emotions never fully coalesces. At the performance I attended, there was lots of tentative and uncertain laughter throughout, regardless of what actually was taking place at any given moment. The writer is definitely on to something here in the depiction of small-town America, but Bobbie Clearly is sorely in need of careful revision. With the exception of Constance Shulman's pitch perfect portrayal of the town's lone cop, we spend far too little time where it is needed, examining the puzzle that is Bobbie and the long-term disruption of everyone's lives.

Bobbie Clearly
Through May 6
The Black Box Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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