Bill W. and Dr. Bob
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
March 3, 2007
Two men stand before the audience, one on either side of the stage. The first one, a tall, lanky fellow, says, "My name's Bill W., and I'm an alcoholic." The audience, without hesitation, replies en masse, "Hi, Bill!" The second man, an older, bespectacled fellow, speaks: "Dr. Bob, alcoholic." Once again, the audience issues a collective greeting: "Hi, Bob!"
Thus begins Bill W. and Dr. Bob, an improbably crowd-pleasing new drama by Stephen Bergman and Janet Surrey about the creation of Alcoholics Anonymous that holds the audience in the palm of its hand from the very start. The title characters are the founders of A.A., and by having them start the show as they would a typical meeting, Bergman and Surrey set a humanistic, unpretentious tone that permeates the entire evening. Bill W. and Dr. Bob leads with its heart, not its head, and pushes the audience's collective buttons earnestly and unapologetically. For their part, the crowd seems all too happy to have their buttons pushed (or, at least they were on the night I attended: at the end of the show, a man sitting behind me turned to his friend and said, "That was a great meeting."). Despite the fact that we already know how it turns out, Bill W. and Dr. Bob tells a suspenseful underdog story that viewers can get behind.
For most of the first act, Bill W. and Dr. Bob tells the individual stories of its namesakes. Bill Wilson is a successful, cocksure New York stockbroker who seems to have a bright future. But when he's ruined in the 1929 Wall Street crash, Bill's already serious drinking problem deepens (by his own admission, he's "a real nasty drunk"). After numerous attempts to quit, Bill finds that the only thing that gives him solace is talking to other drunks. When his desire to drink threatens to knock him off the wagon during a business trip to Akron, Ohio, Bill asks a local clergyman for the name of a local alcoholic he can talk to.
Enter Dr. Bob, a middle-aged surgeon who's been drinking for most of his life. Frequently operating on patients with drunk, shaky hands, Dr. Bob has tried to quit drinking many times, but to no avail. When he meets Bill W., however, Dr. Bob quickly adopts his new friend's theory of fellowship-as-treatment. The two men hit it off, and begin to help each other. Before long, they wonder if their "cure" might not be able to help others like them.
The beauty of this play comes from its insistence on not making a grand statement, but just sticking to the two men's stories. The result is truly suspenseful as the audience wonders if these guys are really going to pull this off. Bergman and Surrey emphasize that Bill W. and Dr. Bob didn't set out to change the world, only to save themselves. The stakes are life-or-death throughout, as the protagonists willingly try anything to stop drinking, no matter how crazy it looks or sounds to anyone else. In this sense, Bill W. and Dr. Bob wonderfully captures the wild, exciting uncertainty of invention.
Rick Lombardo directs the production with flair and confidence. Unafraid of big emotions, Lombardo steers Bill W. and Dr. Bob towards as many cathartic flourishes as possible, which works well for the play. His clear-eyed understanding of Bergman and Surrey's approach emphasizes the we're-making-this-up-as-we-go fervency of the title characters.
Robert Krakovski and Patrick Husted are splendid as Bill W. and Dr. Bob, respectively, forging a bond as strong as the ones made by war buddies. Krakovski's swaggering intensity is a good counterpoint to Husted's homespun sarcasm. Rachel Harker and Kathleen Doyle provide strong support as the two men's long-suffering wives (and Al-Anon forerunners), and Marc Carver and Deanna Dunmeyer do impressive work in a variety of smaller roles. Also worth mentioning is onstage pianist Ray Kennedy, who accompanies the production with evocative but unobtrusive music (which he also composed) that complements it perfectly.
Ultimately, Bill W. and Dr. Bob scores big as an uplifting reminder of the power of the human spirit (a hackneyed phrase, I know, but appropriate nonetheless). The blind faith its main characters put in each other, as well as their last-resort tactics, resonates with most of the audience (including myself). If any show deserves to be the sleeper hit of the season, it's this one.