Azuka Theatre celebrates the return of the Virginia and Harvey Kimmel New Professionals Production program with the Philadelphia premiere of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s comedic Everyman play BOB: A Life in Five Acts. This program gives Philly’s young, rising talent a chance to jump-start their careers with a professional showcase for their acting and technical chops. Too bad for this cohort that BOB is holding the jumper cables.
BOB takes us through the life of, you guessed it, Bob (Paul Harrold). He’s a man with humble beginnings (his birth mother leaves him in the bathroom of a White Castle) who, through a series of improbable twists and turns, becomes the Oprah-worthy stuff of legends. We follow Bob as he travels all over America by hitching a ride in the trunks of cars, meets strangers, and strives toward a greatness that his adopted mother promises he will achieve—even though the “how” of it all eludes him.
But he’s got so much going for him! He’s the perfect mix of optimism, naiveté, and charm! He’s handsome! His mind retains so much information! He makes love like a god, even on the first try! He’s also white, but that probably shouldn’t surprise anyone at this point.
A tight ensemble
But don’t worry, because there are plenty of people to call him on his bullshit along the way. Sort of. Later in life, when Bob decides that he’s No More Mister Nice Bob and has lucked into owning a defunct casino as a home, he berates a girl scout who shows up at his door (Sabriaya Shipley) and celebrates his life choices because he “will not be a slave to fools!” And, for those looking for it, Shipley is there to undercut Bob’s statement with a withering gaze. This is not the only time that people of color are there to subtly point out Bob’s ridiculous behavior.
As a comedy, BOB is a success—the proof is in the laughter that surrounded me. Harrold and the company of characters (played by Shipley, Claris Park, Frank Jimenez, and Dan D’Albis) have bright futures ahead of them. BOB highlights their talents and potential in equal measure, challenging their flexibility as they take on multiple roles and making them fight to shine light on heartwarming messaging buried under a tangential plot. Guided by director Michael Osinski (of Azuka’s previous New Professionals Production, Moth), their ensemble work is tight, with comedic timing—particularly from D’Albis—that sometimes elicited a chuckle from me in spite of myself.
Done with Bob
BOB presents unique obstacles for designers, requiring fast transitions and a level of spectacle appropriate for comedy. A malleable set design by Dustin Pettegrew, including a colorful wall-length map of the US, ramps, and platforms, has enough touring-carnival flair to create ambience and keep things from being too serious. Sound design by Damien Figueras pulls cleverly from favorite movie soundtrack clichés (like sweeping violins when someone falls in love).
If we take a step back from the production, we could say that this play lampoons the American Dream, how we define success in the modern age, and our propensity for enthusiastically rewarding mediocrity or basic decency. There’s an opportunity here to poke fun at weak ally-ship and the white savior mentality. But if those are indeed the goals of this play, then they are undermined by an overstuffed plot and a leading character trotted out so much that he’s rendered unremarkable. This production does further disservice by casting POC in roles that teach life lessons to the white hero, without suggesting that POC shouldn’t be responsible for shouldering this burden.
I’m looking forward to seeing more from this group of actors and designers—but please, no more Bob. I think we all deserve a true Everyperson going forward.
What, When, Where
BOB: A Life in Five Acts. By Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, directed by Michael Osinksi. Azuka Theatre. Through March 17, 2019 at the Proscenium Theatre at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks Street, Philadelphia. (215) 563-1100 or azukatheatre.org.