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Theatre in Review: Bobbie Clearly (Roundabout Underground)/Ms. Estrada (The Flea Theater)

Top: Constance Shulman. Photo: Joan Marcus. Bottom: Madeline Mahony, Malena Pennycook, Pearl Shin, Caturah Brown. Photo: Hunter Canning.

Two new Off Broadway productions focus on individuals who play disruptive roles in their respective communities. From an early age, the title character of Bobbie Clearly has stood out in his hometown of Milton, Nebraska, population seven hundred fifty. As Darla, a local police officer, recalls, in the second grade Bobbie tricked another boy, Eddie, into playing a brutal guess-the-number game, hitting Eddie in the face for every wrong answer. Eddie, who wasn't smart enough to realize that he was being had, kept playing, "and Bobbie keeps hitting him, until the side of Eddie's face is a giant purple bruise and he can barely open his mouth." Lest you think Bobbie is a garden-variety bully, Darla notes that the episode ended with Bobbie screaming, "Why won't you admit that you don't know?!"

This is our first hint that if Bobbie is a misfit, the people surrounding him have plenty of quirks, too. Even allowing for the fact that a small Midwestern town is an ideal locale for a certain kind of hidden-in-plain-sight eccentricity, Bobbie somehow grew up without setting off any alarm bells -- the time he broke the windows in city hall didn't seem to have any special ramifications -- but, a decade later, Bobbie murders Eddie's sister in a cornfield. The rest of Bobbie Clearly focuses on the way his crime ripples out through Milton, especially when he is released from an asylum and returns to town.

As a group portrait, Bobbie Clearly is often quite gripping. Derek, an eerily upbeat Christian husband and father, tries to befriend Bobbie, taking him out to karaoke bars and generally behaving -- with limited success -- as if nothing terrible ever happened. Eddie, who proudly notes that he has been promoted at Apple from Genius to Creative, is upfront about being gay and often brutally candid about his sister's killing, except when he breaks down in tears. Jane, Casey and Eddie's mother, leaves her husband, Stanley -- he of the flat affect, who disembowels a deer onstage -- for Russ, who, in college, majored in theatre; they partner on Milton's Got Talent, a variety show to raise money for a scholarship in Casey's name. The talent show is annually hosted by best friends Mitch and Pete, who have honed their bro-comedy routine (and who once got into a three-against-one fistfight with Bobbie), and regularly features the comically awful dance routines of longtime pals Megan and Meghan, who are also collaborating on a memoir rather tastelessly titled Pieces of Casey.

Everybody, it seems, is in on the Casey industry, and, via a dramatic device by which each character contributes to the making of a documentary film, they often reveal more about themselves than they intend. (The play unfolds across a nine-year time frame.) The playwright, Alex Lubischer, is clearly talented -- he certainly knows the territory -- and he finds plenty of drama in fraying friendships and the strange permutations that can be caused by grief. His three-act structure is awkward, however, and he forces a climax by having Bobbie, back from confinement, sign up to appear in the talent show -- a development that would never, ever be allowed to happen in real life. This sets up a bizarre climax in which Bobbie, his hand wounded in an incident with a corn thresher, takes the stage, at which point Bobbie Clearly loses any sense of reality.

Will Davis' production gets fine work from his large cast, especially Crystal Finn as the permanently grief-stricken Jane; Christopher Innvar as stoic, lumbering Stanley; Tyler Lea as the deceptively confident Eddie; Brian Quijada and Gabriel Brown as the drifting friends Mitch and Pete; and, best of all, the riveting Constance Shulman as Darla, who clearly sees and knows more than she ever intends to say. (As Bobbie, Ethan Dubin is a sideline presence, but he certainly suggests the character's innate, inexplicable strangeness.)

Davis has also enlisted a highly creative production team. Arnulfo Maldonaldo's set, a church basement, surrounds the action with walls of corn cribs, alluding to the town's main reason for existing. Jen Schriever's lighting provides looks for all sorts of locations, including bars and the stage of the talent show. Ásta Bennie Hostetter's costumes are full of thoughtful touches. Palmer Hefferan provided original music as well as a sound design that includes crickets and a corn thresher.

"That was our mistake. Compassion, I think," says Meghan, and even if Bobbie Clearly ends with the company singing "There is a Wideness in God's Mercy," it leaves one with the overwhelming feeling that nobody knows -- indeed, has never known -- what to do with Bobbie. The characters have the best intentions, but they aren't really equipped to handle the extreme strangeness of Bobbie or the evil he commits. A distinctly flawed work, it is nevertheless an affecting look at a community living in tension with the fact of a broken young man. Lubischer is still a student at Yale School of Drama; we haven't heard the last of him.

On a much more frivolous note is Ms. Estrada: For some reason, our playwrights are eager to send a certain Aristophanes heroine to college. First came the short-lived Broadway musical Lysistrata Jones, in which Patti Murin, now running around icy mountain slopes in Frozen, convinced a covey of coeds to go on a sex strike until the Athens University basketball team focused on winning. In Ms. Estrada, by the group known as the Q Brothers Collective, Aristophanes gets a hip-hop twist. The title character, Liz Estrada, is a feminist studies major who gets the women of Acropolis University to stage a sex strike in order to shut down the Greek Games, an annual school-sponsored orgy of Flip Cup, Beer Pong, and other inebriated amusements. I'm all for higher education, too, but I'm beginning to wonder about the efficacy of this particular concept. As written and composed by the Q Brothers -- who, in a cheeky prologue, note, "This is a play about women's struggles, written by four straight men" -- and directed by Michelle Tattenbaum, this is college theatre in more ways than one.

Liz's campaign to shut down the Greek Games, seen as orgies of disgusting male behavior, runs into headwinds because they are supported by Harry Stefani, who singlehandedly keeps Acropolis U. fiscally afloat. Before it is all over, plenty of men will suffer from enforced abstinence, feminist debates will rage, the male dean will take to cross-dressing, and the administration building will be occupied. Subtlety is not on the menu: At one point, the frustrated male students take part in Yoga 101: With Blue Balls, run by Miss Tiffcock. Ms. Spencer, the school's reigning feminist, makes her points in a number titled "Kick it in the Dick." The male fraternity is Alpha Tappa Kegga. Some devices, including the cross-dressing dean, are as old as the theatre at Epidaurus. (The funniest bits, of which there several, are not printable.)

Some bits -- about gender fluidity and bathrooms, cultural appropriation, and viral videos -- are as up-to-date as the latest post on babe.net. And some are so out of left field that they can't help but amuse: I'm thinking of the female students' reverence, verging on worship, for Katharine Hepburn -- a name that, I'm wagering, doesn't ring too many bells on campuses these days. In any case, the lady herself shows up near the end to reprimand Audrey Hepburn -- for whom she is continually mistaken in Ms. Estrada -- for her "atrocious accent" in My Fair Lady, and to make the astonishing pronouncement, "The patriarchy is like the German U-boat in The African Queen now."

With Marguerite Frarey acting as DJ, Ms. Estrada works hard to keep a party atmosphere going, but the rap verse script -- loaded with false rhymes -- is relentless, and the level of wit could occasionally rise above the crotch. Nevertheless, there are some solid laughs, and the Bats, the Flea's resident company, are always a pleasure to watch. This time out, Malena Pennycook makes a strong impression in the title role, as does Jenna Krasowski as the professor who reveres the great Kate. I also enjoyed two holdovers from the theatre's previous production, Fill Fill Fill Fill Fill Fill Fill: Monique St. Cyr, here playing, among other things, that lascivious yoga instructor, and Jonathon Ryan as an earnest young double major (in social work and urban improvement) who'd like to join Liz on the barricades and elsewhere.

Cheerful, scattershot, and seemingly engineered to make use of as many of the Bats as possible, Ms. Estrada seemed to offer a good time to the young audience at the performance I attended. (If you go, wait for the final Audrey Hepburn gag in a lobby display as you exit the theatre.) It's an acceptable schedule filler, I suppose, but let's hope that the Flea's much-vaunted "season of women" has more to offer.-- David Barbour

(13 April 2018)

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