For the first half hour or so of Bullet for Adolf, the new comedy that just opened at New World Stages, I blamed myself for being unable to follow the zigzag plotline gathering eight madcap characters together. Then I finally realized that the show, co-written by Woody Harrelson with old friend Frankie Hyman, set in 1983 Houston, was really just a mess; an often riotous one, but a sloppy play nonetheless. My tendency to take the blame for others’ flaws is my problem to work on. But Bullet’s dramatic inadequacies are Harrelson’s (who also directed) and Hyman’s shared burden to bear.
I’m inclined to believe that Bullet recreates the drug- and alcohol-fueled haze through which its creators stumbled around in their own early career days in Houston, making Zach (Brandon Coffey ) and Frankie (Tyler Jacob Rollinson) their own bumbling onstage doppelgangers. So while plot and character suffer throughout this (somewhat unnecessary) 140-minute comedy, a general sense of confusion helps buoy the shapeless play in a way that Harrelson likely did not intend. The idea that at any time, a motley crew can gather and erupt in a fight, love fest or even a jam session creates the free-flowing sense of what life might have really felt like in the early 1980s.
This cloud of confusion hovers over construction workers Frankie, Zach, and Dago-Czech (Lee Osorio), who work for Jurgen (Nick Wyman), a Hitler obsessive who owns a gun once used in an assassination attempt on the leader. Frankie and Zach’s roommate Clint (David Coomber), an actor prone to unreliably effeminate posturing, cross paths with several women over the course of the play: Jackie (Shamika Cotton), her militant best friend Shareeta (Marsha Stephanie Blake) and Jurgen’s daughter Batina (Shannon Garland), with whom Zach had a brief romance in the past. Little of what happens over the course of the first act matters; it’s just a preamble to get everyone in the same room for Batina’s 18th birthday party, a loony lineup (with terrific fight choreography from Jeffry Denman) that culminates in the disappearance of Jurgen’s prized gun, an act that occurs seemingly because Harrelson and Hyman need to stop the action at some point.
The case of the missing gun provides a backbone to the rest of the show, but it’s a scoliotic one at best that doesn’t always do its talented cast—particularly Blake, Coomber and Osorio—justice. While they are often given funny lines, these broadly drawn characters ally themselves with little explanation for their motivation. And Harrelson falters elsewhere as both writer and director. Other characters describe how Dago-Czech dropped his street voice act to sound like a prim prepster, which would be comical and a boon to Osorio, but we never see it, we’re merely told about it. Meanwhile, a slapstick scene involving Clint and Zach breaking into Jurgen’s house feels forced and clunky—for those able to see the poorly lit sequence taking place in a corner.
There are also many set changes between the three fairly basic sets that go on for too long, thus allowing for quickly-paced montages (courtesy of Imaginary Media) highlighting pop culture events from 1983—everything from Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign to Prince’s “1999” video to Meryl Streep winning her Sophie’s Choice Oscar to a clip from the pilot of (surprise! though it’s three seasons prior to Harrelson’s joining the cast) Cheers gets a quick skewering. These are the kind of clips we can sit back and laugh at, wondering, “What were we thinking then?” But watching Bullet, there are plenty of times to sit back and ponder, “What were they thinking now?”
Bullet for Adolf
Through Sept. 9 at New World Stages, Stage 4, 340 W. 50th St. Call 646-871-1730 or visit www.bulletforadolf.com
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