Bobbie Clearly is both the title and the subject of the new drama in the basement of the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, and while the play certainly bobs—it weaves, too—what it doesn’t achieve, alas, is clarity.
That’s by design, to some degree. Bobbie Clearly is a thriller (sort of), a documentary (in conceit), and (mostly) a psychological portrait of a small town scarred by tragedy. It’s the latest production in the Roundabout Underground series, devoted to new works by emerging artists, and its playwright, Alex Lubischer, a second-year student at the Yale School of Drama, is a playwright in residence at the company. He has created a boldly compelling and mysterious piece, filled with interesting characters. It is a play that is intentionally withholding, and it ultimately fails to fully engage only because it remains too stubbornly opaque.
The setting is the small town of Milton, Nebraska, population 750. The audience is made part of that world: We’re seated on folding chairs arranges around three sides of the playing space, “Milton Comm. Center” stenciled on their backs. The walls of the low-ceilinged black box are covered with ears of corn, arrayed behind chain-link fencing. We’re all in corn country.
The first speaker is the Milton’s one cop, Office Darla. Portrayed with hangdog wholesomeness by the expert character actor Constance Shulman, Darla is speaking about, well, something. “To tell you about Bobbie, I have to tell you about this other boy, Eddie,” she says by way of opening. She proceeds to describe Bobbie as a bully, and, as she goes on, we realize that she’s talking to a documentary crew.
It’s a simple conceit, elevated by Will Davis’s creative and dynamic staging. Cast members move about the stage, hover in corners, underlining a sense of foreboding—and one that everyone knows everyone else’s business. Beyond an upstage piano and a few mic stands, there’s no scenery to speak of, but each moment and scene is distinct and has a sense of place. Davis makes the play come alive.
Through the course of the first act—there are three, with two intermissions—we meet the town and learn that something horrible has happened there, to a young girl named Casey and at the hand of Bobbie. We pick this up in bits and pieces, as different people tell different parts of the story to those unseen documentarians: Among them Bobbie’s sweetly swarmy mentor/big brother, a nursing student named Derek (JD Taylor); Megan and Meghan (Talene Monahon and Sasha Diamond), two bubbily awkward high-school besties and friends of Casey’s; Casey’s divorced parents, the sensitive Jane (Crystal Finn) and stoic Stanley (Christopher Innvar), who at one point guts a deer on stage.
By the end of the act, we’ve met nearly everyone, including Bobbie (Ethan Dubin), who appears in its final moments in a plain white t-shirt and jeans, with a bad haircut and a vacant expression. He’s as lost in this as anyone, it seems clear. Time then passes forward, he’s about to get out of prison, and, with this groundwork laid, we’re ready to find out what happened.
Except we don’t, really. As a way to process Casey’s death, Jane has instituted a fund-raising community talent show. Everyone in Milton has latched onto it. As the second act begins, we’ve jumped forward nearly a decade. Bobbie has come back to town (why he has chosen to return here is unclear; there doesn’t appear to be much family anchoring him to Milton), and annual talent-show prep is underway. Rather than digging deeper on what happened on that horrible afternoon, this act instead explores what’s happened to the town since by tracking the buildup to the talent show, including the revelation that Bobbie, still a cipher, wants to perform. (Good Christians, no one feels they can say no to that bizarre request.) There are smart bits here, and the most intelligent is the question of how mourning becomes ritualized; and when that happens, who owns it, who has control of it, and who gets to participate. But because we’ve never really found out what happened—what exactly Bobbie did, what motivated him, how he processed it—we can’t engage in this examination of the fallout.
The third act is the talent show, with Bobbie’s performance. Sure enough, everything is awful. (Tyler Lea, however, as Casey’s brother Eddie, the boy who Bobbie beat in the opening monologue, dominates this part of the show, wounded but forceful.) And sure enough, Officer Darla closes the evening, with some elegiac notes. They’d be more powerful if we understood more what transpired.
Bobbie Clearly opened April 3, 2018, at the Black Box Theatre and runs through May 6. Tickets and information: roundabouttheatre.org