Theater review by Helen Shaw
There are only 750 people in the fictional town of Milton, Nebraska, and we meet a fairly large percentage of them in young playwright Alex Lubischer’s tonally bizarre tragicomedy, Bobbie Clearly. They include town cop Darla (Constance Shulman), nurse Derek (JD Taylor), best friends Megan (Talene Monahon) and Meghan (Sasha Diamond), and raucous buddies Mitch (Brian Quijada) and Pete (Gabriel Brown); there are also hunter Stanley Welch (Christopher Innvar), his wife, Jane (Crystal Finn), and guitar-strumming Russ (Marcus Ho), who will come between them. It takes a village to tell the story of what happened in Milton, and soon we learn the awful truth: When he was 14, Bobbie Clearly (Ethan Dubin) went among the rows of corn outside of town and shot 16-year-old Casey Welch dead.
Lubischer writes the play as though it were a series of interviews with a documentary crew (effectively the audience). “Am I the first person you’re talking to?” asks daffy Derek, thrilled to be in a spotlight. There are whispered conversations that we “overhear” and a lot of self-consciousness among the interview subjects; some are trying to hide their feelings—we can tell, even when Jane can’t, what’s happening to her marriage—while others crank up their emotions to a fever pitch. Friends of the murdered girl disagree about how close they were. “It’s the worst thing that ever happened to me!” cries Megan. “But it didn’t happen to you,” says Meghan, pulling away. Bobbie Clearly takes place over the course of a decade, which is time enough for the town to start an awkward annual talent show in Casey’s memory, for her traumatized brother Eddie (Tyler Lea) to return home and perform a cathartic tap dance, and for Bobbie himself to crash back into their lives.
Director Will Davis manages Roundabout Underground’s miniature really-still-a-basement space extremely well: He’s placed seats on three sides of the stage, so most of the action happens in the near-round, and Arnulfo Maldonado’s set covers all four walls in corncob bins, glowing gold as a Midwestern afternoon. Lubischer demonstrates a rare sense of command: As he moves us through the story, borrowing motifs from everything from Our Town to Serial, he displays real craft and scope. The performances, too, are executed precisely. For the most part, the townspeople are painted as caricatures and sweet fools—the excellent cast is essentially doing a take on Waiting for Guffman—but two of the actors are playing for real. Shulman’s Darla vibrates with heartbreaking confusion, and Dubin gives Bobbie a scary, compressed energy and an awful, yawning need.
Yet as much as I admired Bobbie Clearly, the play’s bold combination of violence and jokiness—the horrifying content told with such gentle mockery—left me confused and sometimes even angry. Bobbie’s vulnerability is waved like a flag; the play implies that some compassion from his classmates beforehand might have stopped the boy with a gun. Based on what we’ve learned from recent school shootings, that’s not necessarily true. And there’s an absence in the middle of the story. Lubischer is very interested in Bobbie and has written him a complicated and intriguing play. He’s scarcely imagined Casey, though. She’s just the girl in the ground.
Roundabout Underground (Off Broadway). By Alex Lubischer. Directed by Will Davis. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 25mins. Two intermissions.