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Theatre in Review: Robin and Me: My Little Spark of Madness (Abingdon Theatre Company)

Dave Droxler. Photo: Grace Copeland

Lots of kids have imaginary friends...but Robin Williams? That, apparently, was the case with Dave Droxler, author and star of this coming-of-age solo piece. Having lost his beloved grandpop -- a kooky, but endearing, character who overplayed his Italian heritage to the nth degree - the young Droxler stumbled upon an episode of Mork and Mindy and the obsession of a lifetime commenced. To be sure, he needed an adult role model, what with a mother who routinely envisioned disaster on the horizon and a father who squandered every last cent on Pennsylvania Lottery tickets, but whether America's most hyperactive comedian was the right choice is a question Droxler is still trying to answer.

Still, one takes inspiration where one finds it, and many early passages of Robin and Me feature Droxler -- among other things, a busy voice actor in real life -- channeling Williams' spirit, pulling off one outrageous gag after another and riffing off the audience with glee. It's no easy assignment to impersonate such a distinctive personality -- whose best bits are easily accessible on the Internet -- but Droxler is a confident, technically skilled performer with a Williams-like gift for winging it. In any case, his mental connection to the comedian sees him through a period of family turbulence, especially his parents' sometimes-troubled marriage, fancifully depicted here as a near shipwreck at sea.

Like many young people, Droxler finds safe harbor in high school theatre, using his Williams-adjacent skills to stand out from the crowd. But his fan worship fades following an amusing montage of grim Williams film vehicles like Dead Poets Society and Awakenings, not to mention outright flops like Hook. Then the young man gloms onto Jim Carrey, cuing some rather less entertaining, if accurate, Carrey imitations. Nevertheless, the hunt for a suitable father figure continues: In a clever depiction of his flailing young-adult years, Droxler casts himself in a fantasy version of The Dating Game in which he is wooed by the personas of Jack Nicholson, Eddie Izzard, and Andy Kaufman.

But Williams is never far from Droxler's mind as he makes his way through college, befriends a dying young girl, pounds the pavements in New York, falls in love, marries, and has a son. Meanwhile, as often happens, his failing parents make increasing demands, stressing him out until he melts down in front of his son -- and is forced to confront the fact that he may be turning into his unsatisfactory dad. And waiting in the wings is the death of a certain beloved comic personality...

Robin and Me isn't a wildly original piece -- it often resembles Jason O'Connell's The Dork Knight, about growing up in the shadow of the Batman films -- but Droxler is an energetic and ingratiating performer with a knack for mimicry. He amuses when calling up his mother's risk-averse bad advice. ("Remember, if something in life is hard... you can always quit.") He spoofs his needy adolescent self, noting that, thanks to his obstreperous behavior, "I was even given the nickname "Schizo." I mean, what an honor!" And his real-life encounter with Williams on a film set goes about as well as you would expect. Robin and Me would be even more effective if Droxler didn't push quite so hard for tears at the last minute, when his parental issues are rather too neatly wrapped up. But for most of its ninety-minute running time, this is a thoroughly disarming confessional.

One imagines that the director, Chad Austin, had a hand in shaping the piece, making sure that Droxler, who might have tipped over into excess, maintains a sense of discipline. He has also gotten sterling work from his design team. The piece unfolds backstage at a theatre, so Yi-Hsuan (Ant) Ma has provided an atmospheric collection of vintage furniture, along with a vanity table, and impressive red curtain. Lighting designer Dawn Chiang artfully uses color to take us in and out of Droxler's imagination -- the discussion of puberty is especially vivid -- while also providing compelling low-side looks, chases on the bare bulbs hung over the stage, and a lovely strobe sequence featuring Droxler's grandfather performing his signature dance.

Robin and Me only runs through the weekend in an Abingdon Theatre Company presentation on Theatre Row, but it is a companionable piece, honest in its observations, and supplied with more than its share of laughter. I imagine that it will provide Droxler with a vehicle for years to come. --David Barbour

(10 May 2023)

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