It Is a May afternoon in 1955 in Los Angeles California, a mysterious man stumbles into a seedy bar off Hollywood Boulevard desperately seeking a drink.
El Gato Negro is a “cocktail lounge” run by Artie (Kelly AuCoin) a slothful scoundrel and his mal treated mistress May (Ana Reeder). The mysterious customer turns out to be Captain Robert Lewis (Kohl Sudduth) or “Rob” Co-Pilot of the Enola Gay and one of the team who dropped “Little Boy”, the atomic bomb on Hiroshima ten years earlier.
It seems Rob is on the lam from the television show This Is Your Life. They are filming an episode profiling Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a Methodist minister who survived the bombing of Hiroshima and who went on to assist the Hiroshima Maidens, severely burned women who required plastic surgery in the United States.
Rob is being sought by one of the show’s producers, Waxman (Aaron Roman Weiner) who is determined to lure him back despite the lack of a paycheck and who also hopes this particular episode might help bring about a reconciliation between the US and Japan. This altruistic motivation strikes a slightly false chord when contrasted with the crass cosmetics advertising throughout the episode.
Rob is haunted by his history-making mission and by the people from his past. He famously kept a diary of his personal experiences during this top-secret assignment encouraged by William Laurence (Kelly AuCoin) , a journalist from the New York Times who was banned from the flight.
Cusi Cram’s script is a fascinating exploration of the this true to life incident nestled in a fictional setting with some missing blanks in the story creatively filled in. Captain Rob Lewis is one of the few on the Enola Gay crew who ever expressed any kind of remorse over the use of nuclear bombs that resulted in death and destruction on such a massive scale. The script is even timelier given the revived debate as to whether it was even necessary for President Truman to drop the bomb on Japan in order to end the war. There is some evidence that Japan was already willing to surrender (though perhaps not unconditionally) and that nuclear destruction was chosen to intimidate the Soviet Union rather than to bring Japan to its knees.
LABrynith Theatre does solid justice to Cram’s play. David Meer’s set design is a wonderfully detailed work of art - instantly transporting us to a less than savory locale in 1955 LA. Complete with pressed tin ceilings, distressed linoleum floor, period furniture and a well stocked bar. Lighting by Nick Francone supports the action, time and place perfectly and Emily Pepper’s period costumes go a long way in assisting the cast with their multiple characterizations.
Suzanne Agins directs with a steady hand, expert timing and an ideal fluidity. Agins has also assembled a top-notch cast. Kohl Sudduth does an exemplary job in the role of the conflicted Rob. He is a walking contradiction of handsome, smooth talking charmer, and broken human being, troubled by self-doubt and regret that he only wishes to drown in drink.
Ana Reed is appealing in the dual roles of May and Evelyn. She particularly excels as May, a one time Hollywood wanna-be, utterly devoid of talent or ability but filled to the brim with dreams of a better existence. Aaron Roman Weiner shows off a superb range in the roles of the pompous Tibbets who renamed Rob’s plane after his own mother “Enola Gay” and the persistent Waxman whose mission is to wrangle the straying Rob. Kelly AuCoin, who plays both the shiftless Artie and newspaper journalist Laurence with convincing acumen, rounds out the cast.
While the play grips our attention throughout, the ending is a bit muddy and less satisfying, leaving more questions than answers. Granted Rob is drunk by the end but his shifts in thinking still ought to be precise. We become invested in his story and by the end he reveals his flaws (making him all too human) but neither does he completely connect that whatever his sufferings may be – they pale in comparison to the suffering endured by the people of Japan. This also highlights aspects of his relationships that are not clarified or fully developed. In essence, at just under 90 minutes the script does not feel altogether complete. Happily, being a new work one could hope some of these issues may be addressed in the future.
Still what a tremendous opportunity to learn fascinating details about our own complex American history and in such professional hands, New York City audiences cannot go wrong in working their way west to the Bank Street Theatre.