Sometimes in the small off-Broadway houses that New Yorkers treasure, the audience gets to be 'our crowd', you know, theatre geeks. Not so at Bill W. and Dr. Bob, the two hour (one intermission) production at the Soho Playhouse on Vandam Street. This crowd is flavored with AA folks whose anthem is celebrated on stage.
The production is bookended with AA meeting constructs. Bill and Bob stand before us and introduce themselves as alcoholics and the audience responds with the meeting greeting: “Hello Bill”, “Hello Bob”. (Management goes so far as to offer coffee and soda only at the downstairs bar.)
The action centers on Bill Wilson (Patrick Boll), a New York stockbroker with a big sell and a big thirst. His engaging bonhomie crashes with the market in '29. 438 miles away in Akron, Dr. Bob Smith (Timothy Crowe) is crashing around his surgery with a throbbing head and a tremor that ought to scare him and does.
But, there's nothing to be done - they are drunks. No one understands them, religion has failed them, their demons are entirely private and they are in despair.
The two meet through unlikely and desperate circumstances as the plot catalogues the founding mythology of Alcoholics Anonymous. The interplay with the wives, Denise Cormier (Bill's wife) and Deborah Hedwall (Bob's), rather artfully suggests the founding of Al-Anon. In fact the wives get some of the funniest and purposeful lines.
At any rate, redemption, while certainly worthy, is tough to write or play with any subtlety. As struggling drunks Bill W. and Dr. Bob are fascinating as they play out their desperation and play off their eternally disappointed wives. But once they ?get it', that is, they start asking for help, start thinking about alcoholism as a disease, the players who have been antic and charming and yes, despicable, pass over and only play their hagiographic selves.
The supporting cast, Deborah Hedwall and Daniel Pearce, offer up a compelling and certainly energetic 16 additional characters.
The techs should take a bow. Wilson Chin's design of the 600 sq. feet of stage is remarkably elastic. The 24 scene changes are efficient and quick, just part of director Seth Gordon's brief. Ann Wrightson's lighting keeps the audience tracking the action. Even the short brawls in this tiny space come off as credible thanks to fight director Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum.
"Under Seth Gordon’s direction, the actors are restrained, while occasionally indulging in some deliciously garish touches — Dr. Bob makes faintly obscene sounds taking greedy gulps of liquor. Denise Cormier and Deborah Hedwall are fine as Bill and Bob’s wives, respectively, while Daniel Pearce and Liz Wisan effectively play various supporting characters.
The show sticks to a simple narrative as it retraces Bill and Bob’s excellent adventure. This doesn’t leave much room for dramatic tension or insights into, say, the connection between faith and self-help."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
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