David Mamet’s one act paired with Zachary Fernebok’s Navigating Turbulence
One of the characteristics of a good play, or a good piece of music, is that it can receive different interpretations and still be successful. A case in point is American Ensemble Theater’s production of David Mamet’s Bobby Gould in Hell, now in its last week at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop.
Bobby Gould (Slice Hicks), suddenly whisked down to Hell, faces off with a devilish figure known simply as The Interrogator (Anthony van Eyck), who is in a bad mood, having had his fishing trip interrupted.
The Interrogator is intent on making Bobby admit that he’s been a bad man, something Bobby stubbornly refuses to do. After all, he’s only human and he thinks his life merits a “B+.” When The Interrogator decides to nail Bobby on the specific charge of hurting another human being, he brings down to Hell Glenna (Liz Dutton), a former girlfriend of Bobby’s. Glenna, the kind of woman whom you suspect has read too many self-help books, proves to be a real handful for both men.
A by-the-numbers production of this one act play might stress the distinctive streetwise speech patterns that Mamet made famous in works such as Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo. Its director might play heavily on the devilishness of The Interrogator and his assistant (Mikael Johnson), as well as the hellish setting of the play.
American Ensemble Theater, while acknowledging the comedy, chooses instead to focus on the moral ambivalence underlying Bobby’s dilemma. This Bobby Gould (unlike his namesake in Mamet’s earlier Speed-the-Plow) is a little too inarticulate to make a worthy foil for The Interrogator, an issue which Slice Hicks skillfully handles, communicating the emotions hiding just beneath the surface of his frustrated character.
Anthony van Eyck has a wonderful gift for spouting speedy, at times absurd, dialogue yet still making it sound natural (take note, Robin Williams). His Interrogator is a cunning and humorous prosecutor, who glibly poses the questions about the moral ambiguities of life and philosophy.
Similarly, Mikael Johnson gets to display his fine comedic talents as the Interrogator’s Assistant – not a merciless minion, but more of an obsequious office geek (complete with nerdy glasses and a bow tie) who is eager to toady up to his boss.
Blowing through the middle of the work as the wronged woman, Liz Dutton quickly adapts from a confused visitor to Hurricane Glenna, a force of nature who has found a loophole in supernatural law, and starts her own interrogation of both Gould and The Interrogator.
Steven Royal deserves credit for avoiding hell-like clichés; rather, his set is imaginative yet understated. It consists primarily of a pile of found objects mostly painted gold with a chair on top that can become a hot seat or a place of refuge during the evening.
Director Tom Prewitt turns in a fun and thoughtful Bobby Gould in Hell. While he steers it to the lighter side of the work, it’s very entertaining.
Opening the evening is a short play written by Zachary Fernebok, directed by Krista Cowan, called Navigating Turbulence. It is a one-man show about a trip to Hell taken by Charles Lindbergh, who burst into fame with his solo transatlantic flight, became a tabloid figure when his baby was kidnapped, and then declined in public opinion due in part to his support for Germany’s Nazi government in the 1930s and allegations of adultery.
Lindbergh (Matthew Sparacino) is given a youthful and energetic portrayal as the confident pilot believes he can pilot his plane through Hell. Yet this time he is no longer “Lucky Lindy” and he begins to voice doubts and confront imaginary critics as he struggles to escape.
While Lindbergh is an interesting character and Navigating Turbulence fits thematically with Bobby Gould in Hell, the work skips about without feeling grounded. Lindbergh is young, yet appears to have lived most of his life. He touches on some of the less favorable aspects of his life, but his recall is limited by his optimistic character (and by the ten minute production length). One senses the work might also have benefitted from an interrogator to accentuate the conflicts Lindbergh has trouble expressing.
While we don’t usually discuss ticket prices in a review, the cost for a trip to hell – American Ensemble Theater-style – is just $10, making your visit an evening you can’t afford to miss.
Bobby Gould in Hell and Navigating Turbulence run thru June 9, 2012 at Capital Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th St SE, Washington, DC.
Bobby Gould in Hell
Written by David Mamet
Directed by Tom Prewitt
Written by Zachary Fernebok
Directed by Krista Cowan
Produced by American Ensemble Theater
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
Running time: 1 hours, 20 minutes with no intermission
- April Forrer . MDTheatreGuide
- Jane Horwitz . Washington Post
- Genie Baskir . ShowBizRadio
- Lauren Katz . DCMetroTheatreArts