nytheatre.com review by Heather McAllister
October 10, 2009
America's political climate today reflects the tumultuous 1960s: marches on Washington for equality, anti-war protests and civil activism of all sorts. Brian Lee Franklin's play Good Bobby focuses on a privileged wealthy boy's travels through those events, and how that passage turns him into a powerful champion of civil rights, a strong, sensitive leader. Robert F. Kennedy's journey, shown through his succession of family sponsored government jobs and through his struggle to find his place and purpose, both in his family and in service to our country, bridges the gap between our past as a concerned, morally struggling country, and brings into focus the need for our continued fight for equality and justice today.
The play opens with archival film footage of the wealthy, healthy Kennedy family, playing touch football, splashing in the pool, privileged, graceful, strong. We immediately go into RFK's cluttered Washington, D.C. office. He shuffles papers seemingly randomly, he stutters and stammers and repeats himself. He seems a buffoon, a non-Kennedy. Is he a sincere in his efforts? Is he just a spoiled rich kid whose father got him a job? This is not a glorified RFK, this is a real man, making a real struggle to find out who he is, to find out how he can best fulfill his responsibility as a person and as a citizen.
As RFK, playwright Brian Lee Franklin has an uncanny resemblance to the late Senator, an easy grace. He nails his "big scenes" yet his heavy use of stammering and repeating results in the audience missing some important parts of his own script, which is unfortunate.
To the credit of director Pierson Blaetz, the plays moves along quickly. In fact, it was sometimes difficult to keep track of which crisis we were enmeshed in. The main scenes surprise, building masterfully to finish with a big splash, but some of the smaller scenes seem to drift or circle, caught in the eddy of RFK's vocal tics and mannerisms. The use of archival news footage, recordings, and photos is an interesting addition to the imagined private conversations that comprise the play.
The supporting cast is even and strong. Sile Bermingham as RFK's secretary Angie is so lovely and graceful she seems more like a 1950s refrigerator pitchwoman than a hard working government secretary. As Rose Kennedy, Lisa Richards is the perfect political matriarch, strong and sweet and unwavering in her beliefs and love of her family.
As the teamster president Jimmy Hoffa, Dan Lauria is a powerhouse. Big and tough, with a steely gaze and strong build, he exudes raw power. Human, personable, even funny, Lauria's show-stopping second scene with RFK is breathtaking. Although ruthless and frightening, Hoffa champions the workingman (and woman) struggling to feed and care for their families, contrasting privileged Kennedy who never had to work a day in his life, never had to worry about paying for health insurance or having enough food to go around the family dinner table. "Everything you have was given to you, everything I have I took." The scene humanizes Hoffa, shows he's fighting for the people too, and shakes RFK to his core. This encounter with Hoffa seems to give RFK the strength to reawaken the person he began as—not the elitist spoiled politico, but the sensitive and strong man of the people he was on the inside all along.
This is where RFK begins to grow into the man we all have idealized; sadly this is the end of the play.
The costumes by Naila Aladdin Sanders are beautiful, sometimes distractingly so. Each ensemble worn by secretary Angie is lovelier than the last. The men's government suits are spot on, with the exception of the CIA operative, who for some reason is dressed like a rumpled college professor in cords.
The set by Victoria Bellocq is a clever design, one half formal stuffy office and the other half formal stuffy Kennedy family home, their Cape Cod locale represented with a gorgeous beach scene painted over the entire left wall of the stage.
During the play I kept thinking about the idealism of that time in our history, about the enormous struggle and sacrifice to do what is right as a person, as a Christian, as an American. This play made me rethink some of it. Hoffa wasn't only trying to strong-arm and bully and racketeer, he also had a purpose, to help the workers. His means were horrific, but it's hard to argue with the ends...I belong to three unions myself. And the Kennedys, they may have been using their money and privilege to gain power, and they may have helped the oppressed members of society with more than a touch of arrogance and snobbery, but again, the service and sacrifice they made to our country was astounding.
In the end, Good Bobby makes me proud to be an American. Proud to be a union member too. It shows the timeless value of hard work and selflessness. Don't miss it.