Reviewed by Will Stackman
This biographical docu-drama was written by two professionals, Dr. Stephen Bergman and his wife, Janet Surrey, a psychologist. Bergman is also a novelist and playwright under the pen name "Samuel Shem." "Bill W. and Dr. Bob" is a rather painstaking treatment of the founding of AA by two professionals, a stockbroker and a surgeon, who managed to save themselves from chronic alcoholism, and pass their technique of one on one personal counseling on to the world. More a tribute than a drama, this production still has effective moments. It's done well enough with audiences who don't regularly attend serious live drama that the New Rep added performances within the run to meet demand. There's also a good possibility that the show will play off-Broadway next fall.
What current theatrical effectiveness this earnest piece has should be credited to a superb cast tightly directed by the New Rep's Artistic Director, Rick Lombardo. The title roles of Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith are taken by Robert Krakovski andPatrick Husted, two strong regional rep actors with national reputations. Their wives, Lois and Anne, are played by equally experienced actresses, Rachel Harker and Anne Doyle. This quartet manages to work through family turmoil without descending into soap opera. All the rest of the parts--and there may be too many--are taken by Deanna Dunmyer and Marc Carver, who carry off the more important roles, and effectively sketch to rest, often with only moments for offstage costume changes.
To achieve more than two dozen scene changes, Anita Fuchs has surrounded the stage with tall panels covered with woodgrained folded slats. Individual scenes ride in on wagons from left and right plus upstage center, often with one or more side panels sliding out as well. The result provides needed realism, but becomes tedious. The play would benefit from a quicker way to indicate some scenes and more overlapping action, if only for variety. The impetus of the action is diminished by the pace and some scenes which are overwritten in an attempt to find heightened speech to accompany emotions. The show feels at times like a novel adapted for the screen but put onstage.
Technical support at the New Rep continues to impress. Jane Alois Stein has captured the Depression-era feel of 1934-35 with accurate costuming. Dan Meeker's light plot is flexible and effective. Todd C. Gordon arranged and plays a score full of period themes onstage at the piano, which shifts position from scene to scene. The audience's attention is generally held even when things go on too long. This is a play firmly in the tradition of temperance melodramas such as "The Drunkard" or "Ten Nights in a Barroom," with a more socially-conscious conclusion. The script could however have been written any time in the last half-century and seems anchored to a world-view which supports the 12 step approach, with no questions about society as whole. The personal approach to salvation is very American, which may account for audience satisfaction with this piece, despite critical misgivings. Framing the show with the two title characters address the audience, who're assumed to be attending an AA meeting or the first convention 1955, suggests that stepping out from the serial action of the script might be useful during the play as well.
Self-help is been part of our national character since Poor Richard, and the community-based nature of 12 step programs has links to the waves of religious revival which seem to sweep this country periodically, with mixed results. Calling on a "higher power", which AA et al. inherited from the Oxford movement, may be necessary, but can lead to other simplistic decisions which are not beneficial, either to the individual or to society as a whole. There's a stronger drama in this material than Bergman and Surrey have staged.