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Bullet for Adolf

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Bullet for Adolf
Photo by Carol Rosegg

When a director is more successful distracting the audience from the playwright's work than he is in staging it, you know you're in trouble. Such is the case with Bullet for Adolf, which just opened at New World Stages: The man at the helm has so latched onto the 1983 setting that he opens the show with a pointless disco dance number, then stuffs the many bloated scene changes with dozens of 80s video clips, depicting everything from Ronald Reagan to Diff'rent Strokes to Michael Jackson, that have nothing to do with anything. But the problem here is goes deeper than an ill-equipped artist staging scenes he doesn't get: Here, the playwright and the director are the same person.

That would be Woody Harrelson, but the identity and work of this well-known Hollywood actor (who's also occasionally dabbled in theatre) is not enough to cut through the flying red flags and booming klaxons the Bullet for Adolf situation sets off. It would be easier and more pleasant to believe that this were the work of a rank amateur, not a professional performer with enough experience to know better (including many years on one of TV's all-time finest sitcoms, Cheers). Instead, this is a powerful object lesson as to why meaningful collaboration between artists is usually more beneficial to a playwright's vision than in treating every word and idea like it's sacrosanct.

If nothing else, one can appreciate the impetus for the play. Harrelson and Hyman worked together in the early 1980s, and were so affected by the people they met that they had to bring them to life. But, Harrelson has admitted, "was our real lives didn't have much of a plot, so we started embellishing. Now it's about seven percent history and 93 percent embroidery." Unfortunately, while they were embroidering, Harrelson and Hyman neglected their most important roles in the creative process: fitting what they were doing to the needs and expectations of the stage. The result is that a play packed with content feels bitterly empty.

New to the area after fleeing New York due to his criminal past, the young Frankie (Tyler Jacob Rollinson) meets Zach (Brandon Coffey) at a construction job and learns he needs someone to split the rent. Frankie doesn't have much money, but Zach convinces his present roommate, the sexually ambiguous Clint (David Coomber) to take him in. Now on the front line, Frankie gets convinced to attend a birthday party for Zach's girlfriend from the previous summer, Batina (Shannon Garland), at which her European ex-patriot father Jurgen (Nick Wyman) displays his most cherished possession: a gun that jammed when Hitler tried to kill himself with it.

Given that Frankie, the woman he likes, Jackie (Shamika Cotton), and the friend she's brought along, Shareeta (Marsha Stephanie Blake), are all black, and Frankie's mutt friend Dago-Czech (Lee Osorio) acts like he is because he was raised in the ghetto, this doesn't go over well. So it's not exactly a surprise when, while everyone is distracted singing and dancing to Stevie Wonder's "Happy Birthday" just before intermission, the gun is stolen.

What's more shocking is that the ensuing mystery about its disappearance is so unengaging that even Harrison and Hyman lose interest in addressing it in any real way in Act II. (Its opening scene is of Batina and Jackie doing yoga.) They present it as nothing more than a catalyst for letting all these "wacky" people behave "wackily," but it fails even at that because the premise justifies not even a millisecond's worth of legitimate emotional or comedic heat. And it's not helped by the hollow, slipshod characters that may well fill the writers' hearts with sparkling joy but as rendered here are grating caricatures of less-than-Hirschfeld levels of detail.

Frankie is such a blank slate, likely the authors' way to downplay his crime-riddled past, he's impossible to relate to, though Rollinson's mild likability helps him stay afloat somewhat. Zach, Batina, and Jackie have no personalities at all, and Shareeta's is so strongly clich├ęd (the angry black woman) that she might be better off as a cipher. (The actors in these roles are especially at sea.) Clint and Dago-Czech's one-note conceptions (respectively, "Is he gay or not?" and "The white guy acting black is so silly!") become painfully overused within minutes of their deployment, and are not aided by Coomber's and Osorio's straining hard-sell performances. Wyman, in the play's only halfway-compelling creation, at least displays a few unexpected moments of depth.

It helps that he's also the only actor who doesn't shout every line, something that, for everyone else, seems like the commandment "louder, faster, funnier" gone awry. (Dane Laffrey's ugly and cavernous industrial set does nothing to help focus the actors' voices.) One wishes Harrelson had more concerned himself with the "faster" (two and a half hours is 60 minutes too long for dialogue this waffling and action this wobbly) and "funnier" (the most uproarious situations elicit, at most, vague snickers), but given what's onstage one suspects he cared more about his paying tribute to his friends and the decade that spawned them than by putting on a good (or even watchable) show.

If there's worth in Bullet for Adolf, it needs an objective observer to draw it out, not someone who'll settle for slavish recreations of a life none of us has lived. Even so, there's no evidence that this story needs telling. A theatrical magician of the first order can make an absorbing, full-length play out of a one-sentence trifle, but making a robust something out of nothing is one of playmaking's most daunting challenges. Making nothing out of nothing is far easier, as Harrelson and Hyman have demonstrated. Happy as we may be that they formed a lasting bond 30 years ago, all the noise they've injected cannot drown out the deafening echoes of awkward silence that emanate from their pointless, meandering play.

Bullet for Adolf
Through September 9
New World Stages / Stage 4, 340 West 50th Street Between 8th and 9th Avenues
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes, including one intermission
Tickets and current performance schedule: Telecharge

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