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Bill W. and Dr. Bob

This new play about the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous is crudely constructed but undeniably sincere.

By New York City
Robert Krakovski and Patrick Husted in Bill W. and Dr. Bob
(© Carol Rosegg)
Robert Krakovski and Patrick Husted in Bill W. and Dr. Bob
(© Carol Rosegg)
"My name is Bill W., and I'm an alcoholic," confides a character standing under an isolating light at the very start of Bill W. and Dr. Bob, Stephen Bergman and Janet Surrey's crudely constructed if undeniably sincere play about the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. At the performance I attended at least a third of the audience members cheerily responded "Hi, Bill" or "Hey, Bill." When immediately afterward, a second character standing in a second shock of light says, "Dr. Bob, alcoholic," the same third of the audience -- now augmented by a few bandwagon-hoppers -- responded with "Hi, Bob."

If a significant portion of the ticket buyers behaved as if they were at a church-basement AA meeting, listening to a peer begin a confessional speech, in a way they were. To use support-group vernacular, the patrons were present at the ultimate qualification, or candid revelation of one's drinking history. Since people in recovery don't usually seek social niceties from their gatherings, neither are they likely to demand dramaturgical niceties in a play that champions Bill Wilson and Dr. Robert Smith, a couple of supposedly hopeless drunks who had the breakthrough understanding in 1935 that sharing humiliating experiences is what could lead chronic drinkers to forego their debilitating habit.

It's probably helpful to keep in mind while watching this depiction of this story -- which for many has a weight equivalent to Moses' bringing the tablets back from Mount Sinai -- that the literature cherished by AA members often has the homogenized feel of committee writing. Even Anita Fuchs' set, which consists mostly of looming panels that travel clumsily back and forth, has the makeshift appearance of a meeting room.

In a series of introductory scenes, New York stockbroker Bill Wilson (Robert Krakovski) and Ohio surgeon Bob Smith (Patrick Husted) are shown literally falling-down drunk, often trying the patience of their long-suffering wives Lois Wilson (Rachel Harker) and Anne Smith (Kathleen Doyle).

Even Smith's exposure to the pre-AA Oxford Group precepts doesn't convince him to stop drinking, but it does prepare him for a desperate tete-a-tete with the now-sober Wilson, who ends up in Akron on a business trip and needs to talk to another empathizing boozer to avoid going on a bender. By the time they finish their inaugural six-hour chat at the home of local doyenne Henrietta Seiberling (Deanna Dunmyer), they've established the basic structure for every AA meeting since.

As the first act ends, the pair realizes they need to confirm their theory by recruiting one more convert. In act two, they do so -- but only after encountering potential-member difficulties and dealing with resistance from their dubious wives. It reveals nothing to say they find their man. The rest is spiritual -- and spirits -- history.

In keeping with the quality of the writing, director Rick Lombardo's production is rough around the edges. Some of the acting, particularly during the inebriation segments, is reminiscent of the Reefer Madness under-marijuana-influence scenes; it's histrionic, let-this-be-a-lesson-to-you stuff.

On balance, Husted's Dr. Bob is more controlled than Krakovski's Bill W., while Doyle's Anne Smith is better crafted than Harker's Lois Wilson. But nuance isn't high on anyone's to-do-list, including Marc Carver and Deanna Dunmyer, who play everybody else who come in contact with the men.

The promotional material for Bill W. and Dr. Bob proclaims it the "first-ever play about the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous." However, a superior 1989 teleplay, My Name is Bill W., starring James Woods and James Garner as the seminal figures, exists and is available for home viewing.

Nevertheless, Bergman and Surrey's script will likely lead to future productions, especially by amateur and AA groups everywhere. The birth of Alcoholics Anonymous may not be the greatest story every told, but without question it's one of the greatest 20th-century stories -- even when it isn't told greatly.


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