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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Bob: A Life in Five Acts

"We have one chance and then we disappear "— Bob
Jeff Galfern, Hutchi Hancock, Tara Karsian
(Photo credit: Megan J. Carroll)
Sometimes a title tells you all you need to know. In name and deed, Bob: A Life in Five Acts is slyly funny, yet also a bit generic and puffed-up.

Chris Fields' production matches Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's writing every step of the way. They're admirably direct and thoroughly charming, but could use more tonal variety. You may end up wishing Bob didn't live quite so long.

Our hero is a contemporary Candide, whose cock-eyed optimism is sorely tested from his first minute. Born in a White Castle bathroom, Bob (Jeff Galfer, introduced in a onesie) is abandoned immediately by his mother (Tara Karsian). But he's also consistently lucky. The infant is scooped up by the super-sweet low-level employee Jeanine (Hutchi Hancock), who takes him on the run rather than give him up to social services.

Bob's education is rooted wholly in experience. He's road-schooled. Seeing Mount Rushmore as a boy, he promises Jeanine he'll become a great man. When she soon dies on the steps of the Chicago Art Institute, it's left to young Bob to take the reins of his own life.

Riding the rails, he crosses paths with his father Gunther (Michael McColl), a down-at-heel former animal trainer who leaves Bob with a life's goal, to discover and fulfill his Ringertraum. It's the dream of every circus performer, "standing in the center ring, performing the one seemingly impossible act they've dedicated their entire life to being able to achieve."

Like many picaresques, the action here is basically this-happens-then-that-happens. Bob covers a lot of miles but keeps running into the same people, his mother included. The point here isn't the plot. And the attraction isn't the theme. Its exploration of Americans' definition of success is well-trod territory.

Nachtrieb's bracing voice is what keeps Bob, which premiered at Louisville's prestigious Humana Festival, humming. It's unstintingly upbeat yet singed with a pain that makes it memorable. The dialogue is rich in dead-pan aphorisms like, "Some things aren't supposed to last forever. Like fruit."

In the second act, Bob hits a lucky streak that makes him rich. Bob's big heart goes from his sleeve to someplace out of sight, but he's still got his enthusiasms and a becoming self-awareness: "Let me eat cake!" No matter Bob's flirtation with cynicism, Chris Fields' genial production, anchored by Galfern's game performance, keeps us content.

The rest of the company is double-cast. At the performance viewed, Hancock, Karsian, McColl, and Rich Liccardo gave each of their multiple roles a solid, straightforward dignity. Karsian in particular follows Nachtrieb's directive of being humorously grave. No one pushes, but no one risks much either.

The staging plays it safe as well. Angel Herrera's set, composed of a flat up-center flanked by two angled piles of junk (pale next to memories of her gorgeous trash heap for last season's Timboctou at Redcat), narrows the playing area. Every now and then a cast member pops up behind a pile, but Fields' staging, like the play, could use more invention.

The junk is made up of only name-brands, which leads one to expect a kind of cultural commentary that Nachtrieb doesn't deliver. More in keeping with the tone is the color-form inspired central panel, where all the props, in comic two-dimensions, are attached by velcro. Similarly, Drew Dalzell's sound design draws a smile with nearly every cue.

The name "Bob" itself has become a culture-wide cue to laugh. It likely started with Bob Newhart. In his TV shows, the mention of his first name became its own punch line (and an incitement to down a shot in the college drinking game). The film What About Bob? cemented the name's power to get laughs on its own, becoming a wryly comic spin on the average "Joe."

Now comes Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's title character to give the palindromatic handle a fresh spin. While the comedy doesn't come close to achieving the plaque-worthy greatness the character aspires to, he's fun to be around. Nachtrieb believes that means something and, based on Fields' disarming production, it's hard to disagree.

by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb
Directed by Chris Fields
Cast: Ahmed Best, Alana Dietz, Jeff Galfer, Hutchi Hancock, Tara Karsian, Rich Liccardo, Michael McColl, Jud Williford, Jacqueline Wright
Scenic designer - Angel Hererra
Lighting designer - Matt Richter
Costume designer - Kathryn Poppen
Sound designer - Drew Dalzell
Press representative - Lucy Pollak
Production stage manager - Julie Ann Harris
Producers - Lauren Bass and Chris Fields
Runs Friday to Sunday through June 30 at the Atwater Village Theatre 3269 Casitas Avenue Los Angeles, CA 90039
Running time: Two hours and ten minutes including one intermission
Reviewed by Jon Magaril
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