I loathe Forrest Gump.
There, I said it. It’s treacly, toxic and manipulative, filled with platitudes about life that lack even the vaguest hint of authenticity (don’t get me started on the fucking “box of chocolates” metaphor).
For just that reason, I was drawn to Bob: A Life in Five Acts. Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s play could be seen as a sly and snarky riff on the Forrest Gump model.
Here, too, an unlikely Everyman figure is followed through life in the form of an all-American road-trip, engaging us simultaneously in our evolving cultural history and our protagonist’s sometimes awkward and unsuccessful attempts to survive and grow. The literary precedent for such a work is the picaresque, a connection reinforced here through flowery descriptions of each episode, as well as that deliberately archaic five-act structure.
Surrounding Bob (Paul Harrold) on his journey are a number of characters, all played by four cast members (Dan D’Albis, Frank Jimenez, Claris Park, and Sabriaya Shipley) identified as “Chorus.”
But Bob proves as vexing as Forrest Gump, albeit in a different way. The script is impossibly overwritten, veering wildly across any number of lanes and styles. This kind of tone-shifting requires absolute mastery (Christopher Durang is the first name that comes to mind, but there are others), and Nachtreib’s writing isn’t up to it.
Jokes turn dark so quickly the audience doesn’t have time to catch on. At one particular gruesome point, we are invited to giggle when a Girl Scout character earnestly talks about raising money to help a homeless family. At another, we’re meant to titter over the image of Lou Gehrig somehow taking advantage of his ALS diagnosis. The truck (I guess that’s what it is) that conveys Bob through his life looks, in scenic designer Dustin L. Pettegrew’s visual world, like a comic version of the Joad family wagon in The Grapes of Wrath, which of course is one the saddest images in modern American literature. (Nachtrieb seems hell-bent on reminding the audience of his artistic forebears—Grapes of Wrath is mentioned specifically, as are Walt Whitman, Robert Rauschenberg and others.)
Surely these and other similar moments push the button beyond what is appropriate even for satire.
As best I can tell, Bob wants to be simultaneously corrosive and poignant—to amuse and shock the audience in equal measure. But it comes off as desperately trying too hard, a quality amplified in director Michael Orlinski’s broadly drawn production. The young ensemble members, a likeably diverse group, all seem to be winking at their material—I had the gnawing sense they found themselves far funnier than I did. Harrold, too, over-delivers—the model here should be the young Henry Fonda, an actor who knew how to break our hearts through brilliant underplaying.
And yet, I did learn something. As I said, my dislike for Forrest Gump is considerable. But as it turns out, a sneering hipster spin on Forrest Gump is actually far worse.
Bob plays through March 17. For more information, visit the Azuka Theatre website.