Bobby Gould in Hell

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Bobby Gould in Hell photo
Chelsie Lloyd/American Ensemble Theater
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Editorial Review

Two plays on hell, lacking a little fire
By Jane Horwitz
Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Even lesser, frothier works by David Mamet, such as his 1989 comic one-act, “Bobby Gould in Hell,” bristle with the playwright’s classic identifiers. There’s that refrain, “Do you see? Do you see?” that often punctuates his badda-bing, badda-boom dialogue. And there’s that dash of sour misogyny. It’s all there.

American Ensemble Theater has mounted a production of “Bobby Gould” that finds most of the laughs, yet is under-realized in other ways. The cast, directed by Tom Prewitt, doesn’t plumb the menace and darkness between the lines; nor does it bring enough panache to the Mamettian repartee. This little one-act should unfold like clockwork, but here it occasionally misses a tick or a tock.

The set in Capitol Hill Arts Workshop’s tiny space is eye-catching. Designed by Steven Royal, it is really a large pile of found objects, all painted gold: picture frames, a wagon wheel, a mannequin torso and, at the top, a thronelike chair. Behind this golden pile is an impressive reproduction of the famous triptych by Hieronymus Bosch, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” whose third panel depicts the grisly horrors of Hell.

This is Hell’s anteroom, where new arrivals are interviewed about their sins. The title character (played by Slice Hicks) is a shlumpy, balding fellow, albeit with a sharp goatee. The Interrogator’s Assistant (a droll Mikael Johnson), a nerd in tortoise-shell specs and a bow tie, has little information for the worried Gould. Then the Chief Interrogator (Anthony van Eyck), bursts in, all tricked out in fishing gear as if he had been heading out to land a few trout. Bobby Gould may be his catch of the day.

Gould must argue to the blustering but not wholly unsympathetic Interrogator that he is really not the bad man that the records indicate. At issue is what sounds like a mildly sadomasochistic sexual encounter between Gould and a woman to whom he made violent threats. At around the halfway point in this none-too-theological confab, the woman in question, Glenna (Liz Dutton), is brought in to tell her side of the story. As with most women in Mamet plays, she seems frail and human at first, then turns into an irrational she-monster, so argumentative that the Devil’s own can’t wait to get rid of her. Dutton does her darndest to turn Glenna into a contrarian of nightmarish proportions.

Whatever stance you take on the interrogation and ultimate fate of Bobby Gould, the play as performed by American Ensemble is an engaging -- if too lightly acted -- trifle.

It’s preceded by a new 10-minute play, “Navigating Turbulence,” a monologue by American Ensemble’s playwright-in-residence, Zachary Fernebok. Also set in Hell, the solo piece riffs on the life of Charles Lindbergh, played with a callow kind of energy by Matthew Sparacino under Krista Cowan’s direction.

We first see Lindy in that tall chair, trying to pilot his plane out of Hell. But he can’t escape. He’s forced to recall not only the tragic loss of his kidnapped and murdered baby, but incidents from his later life involving Nazi sympathies, infidelity and more. Fernebok packs a lot of factoids into this short deconstruction of an American icon, but the result seems too pat and not all that enlightening.

American Ensemble was founded in 2010 by Martin Blank, who was the founding artistic director of Theater J in the early 1990s. The company does one full production a year in addition to staged readings. Blank and his team hope to present American plays on a low budget for low ticket prices. They did a fine job with Lee Blessing’s two-character drama “A Walk in the Woods” in 2010, and a shakier job in 2011 with Christopher Durang’s multi-character farce “Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them.” This double-bill of “Bobby Gould in Hell” and “Navigating Turbulence” falls somewhere between the two in quality -- not shaky, but not wholly fine, either.