Bill W. and Dr. Bob

This new production of Sam Shem and Janet Surrey’s tale of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous is a compelling if long piece of theater.

Timothy Crowe and Patrick Boll in <I>Bill W. and Dr. Bob</I>.
Timothy Crowe and Patrick Boll in Bill W. and Dr. Bob.
(© Joseph E. Reid)

The Huron Club, the downstairs bar at the SoHo Playhouse, has been rechristened “The Sober Café,” at least for the duration of the run of Bill W. and Dr. Bob, Sam Shem and Janet Surrey’s play about the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. Both doctors, the husband-and-wife playwriting team have developed a startlingly emotional and dramatic script. Still, it can sometimes drag, stretching the play to a restless 130 minutes.

The show starts like any typical AA meeting. Bill Wilson (Patrick Boll) and Dr. Robert Smith (Timothy Crowe) face the audience and introduce themselves with first name, last initial, and an admission that they are alcoholics. “Hi Bill,” the audience answers back in unison. After this initial introduction, we are given a theatricalized account of the two men’s most shameful moments as drunks. We witness Bill nearly beaten to death with a bag of golf clubs during a bar fight. We see Dr. Bob fall down drunk, sobbing like a child. By the time they meet, both men are well-versed with the God-infused rehabilitation programs of the temperance movement…and how they do not work. They quickly realize that the only people who can truly understand and help alcoholics are other drunks.

Crowe registers an especially powerful performance as Dr. Bob. His drunk episodes are truly disturbing: Just imagine, this man, a surgeon by trade, is expected to operate on other human beings. The towering Boll has an appropriately macho swagger, befitting a Wall Street stock broker.

Denise Cormier and Deborah Hedwall turn in convincing performances as Lois and Anne, the two men’s wives. Their scenes together are some of the most well-written, foreshadowing the formation of Al-Anon, the support group for family members of alcoholics.

Daniel Pearce and Liz Wisan have the herculean tasks of portraying every other man and woman in the play. Both rise to the occasion, especially Wisan, whose falsely genuine Henrietta Seiberling, the evangelical daughter-in-law of the founder of Goodyear Tires, is a comedic highlight.

While this story is certainly worthy of a dramatization, it could easily be condensed into ninety minutes. The play starts to lose steam in the second act as the men begin their crusade to help other alcoholics in an effort to start a national movement. Still, Surrey and Shem have a noble cause and their play has undoubtedly already helped hundreds of people. The show program is laden with ads for 12-step programs and rehab centers.

Beyond its social service, Bill W. and Dr. Bob is a truly fascinating American story that should be seen by a wide audience. The audience for the performance I attended seemed dominated by people who were familiar with the 12-step ethos, nodding their heads and voicing approval for the aphorisms shared on stage. As an outsider, it had the effect of being in a church, the liturgy for which one is unfamiliar. You may want to join by the end, or you may want hightail it to the nearest non-sober café. As Bill W. and Dr. Bob might remind you, it is always ultimately your choice.

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