BWW Review: Charming and Familiar ARNIE LOUIS AND BOB
Trinity Rep's world premiere of Katie Pearl's ARNIE LOUIS AND BOB is a charming take on getting older, family and whether or not men ever really grow out of being a lost boy. By shattering the fourth wall and actually having the author of the play become one of the characters, the play manages to comment upon itself and inject laugh upon laugh into an increasingly absurd situation that's set in what looks like Grandma's house. Exceptional performances all around and unexpected characters come together to create a lovely story with plenty of heart and humor.
ARNIE LOUIS AND BOB is, one would assume, the story of Arnie, Louis and Bob. In actuality, it's a much more complicated story that's almost about the author herself, but told through the vehicle of her uncles, with whom she used to stay with as a little girl. Cousins Arnie and Bob have been living together in relative harmony in Arnie and Louis's parent's home when Louis arrives and says he needs a place to stay. Arnie is unflappable, calm almost to his own detriment and Louis is a creative tortured type who has never quite managed to figure out his own life, or actually produce any of the art he is so focused on. Initially, it seems to be a story of an Odd Trio figuring out the next phase of their life, but midway through the first act, author Katie Pearl stands up and interrupts the play with a critique of how the actor is portraying her uncle's reactions.
From there, Ms. Pearl inserts herself firmly into the action of the play, though she insists the whole time she's doing it that it's not her story, but her uncles'. Things get even murkier when she starts ordering stagehands around, and it turns out that Louis can actually see the stage hand, and believes that she is Peter Pan. Ms. Pearl tries to both control the story, but also let her characters make their own choices, and eventually everything is completely out of her hands. In the end, it's a bit difficult to tell whose story is actually being told as the play ends with Ms. Pearl watching old movies of her uncles as children. The ultimate conclusion seems to be that it's a story of family and what you do to celebrate and help those you love, but it seems to struggle a bit to get there.
The device of inserting the author directly into the play is unexpected and ultimately delightful, and the extra step of forcing a stagehand to participate is really the icing on the cake and gives us wonderful lines like "I'm a stagehand, it's my job to make you fly!" Julia the stagehand, who is not credited in the program, was a hilarious, if seemingly reluctant addition to the cast. At no point did the play-within-a-play of author and stagehand seem anything less than 100% spontaneous, which made something that could have been hokey and annoying absolutely charming. It's a gamble that paid off in uproarious laughter.
The credited cast, veteran Trinity actors Brian McEleney as Arnie; Timothy Crowe as Louis and Stephen Berenson as Bob are fantastic as always, but feel a bit underutilized. Stephen Berenson shines as Bob, the Taylor Swift obsessed zamboni driver, but Brian McEleney's character seems to have nothing to do. He follows the teaching of a guru, and has trained himself to be non-reactive, which when juxtaposed by the other manic performances just comes off as a bit boring. A play like this needs a straight man, but it's unfortunate to not see McEleney really get to perform, rather than just take up space on stage.
Timothy Crowe is perfect as angsty, tortured Louis. He manages to nail down the overwrought personality of the inert artist, but also make himself endearing, which is quite the challenge. The combination of his character's impractical belief that he can manage to go to Neverland with Peter Pan, and the author's obvious love and concern for him, really showcase a beautiful family relationship and what you would do for your loved ones if you could (almost) write their story.
ARNIE LOUIS AND BOB is a thoroughly entertaining production that has familiar elements to ground the viewer, and completely bonkers elements to keep everyone guessing. It's refreshing to see a play where you have absolutely no idea what is currently happening or what will happen next, but rather than feeling confused, you somehow know you'll be taken care of.
Arnie Louis and Bob runs April 7-May 8, 2016. Tickets are on sale now by phone at (401) 351-4242, online at www.trinityrep.com, or in person at the theater's box office at 201 Washington Street, Providence.