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At Trinity ‘Arnie, Louis and Bob’ make for a strange night of theater

Review by Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.

To borrow (and slightly amend) a famous line from the poet Robert Frost – Something there is that doesn’t love a fourth wall.

In theater parlance “breaking the fourth wall,” means addressing the audience directly, with actors usually stepping out of character to do so. Arnie, Louis, and Bob, a new play by Katie Pearl, which is having its world, premiere at Trinity Repertory Theater, breaks the wall with a vengeance and takes the practice to extremes not often seen outside of experimental settings.

Done sparingly and well it is a technique that can expand the perspective of the audience and provide a refreshing and more inclusive experience for viewers. Done to excess it can court disaster. Arnie, Louis, and Bob veers well into the danger zone.

The richly textured roller coaster ride of a play is on stage April 7-May 8 in the Sarah and Joseph Dowling, Jr. Theater downstairs at the Lederer Theater Center, 201 Washington Street, Providence.

Directed by Melissa Kievman, with a credit to “Production Director” Laura E. Smith also noted in the program, the show features Timothy Crowe, Brian McEleney, and Stephen Berenson, three of Trinity’s most veteran, gifted, and highly acclaimed actors. Their presence alone ensures that a production will be given the greatest benefit of the doubt. This play needs it.

Arnie and Bob are cousins. They live together in the home where Arnie grew up. Louis is Arnie’s brother. He shows up unannounced and nearly broke, having lost his apartment. He intends to move in. Louis is clinically depressed and possibly schizophrenic and has stopped taking his medication. He is struggling to write a novel based on his troubled life. It has been a long-standing quest.

Arnie cannot deny him a place in the ancestral home, but, though he rarely shows emotion, he is not pleased. The arrival of Louis serves as a catalyst, which sets in motion a complicated chemistry that, both binds and repels the two brothers and their cousin.

Almost immediately Louis is traumatized by Arnie’s insistence that he sleep in the vacant bedroom that belonged to their parents, replete as it is with numerous relics of their lives there. These include an array of their mother’s lipstick tubes, all open and left standing on end on a table near the bed, as well as large photos on the wall of mom and dad at their 50th and 60th wedding anniversary celebrations. Trying to stay in the room sends Louis into a downward spiral.

The set is literally littered with family mementoes (like a one-handed bowling trophy) accumulated through the years, as well as the detritus from living so long in one place. Everything and anything can trigger memories and cause pain and there is a profusion of objects that might act as flash points. Full of visual cues and palpable touchstones, the home is both crucible and echo chamber.

Overcome by the impact of Arnie’s edict about the bedroom, Louis collapses in a corner and withdraws, apparently catatonic. A promising and compelling drama seems about to unfold.

Then the playwright rears her head. . . literally. . . and smashes down the fourth wall. Ms. Pearl, whose real uncles and their cousin are the models for her characters, stands up from a seat in the third or fourth row and begins to explain, complain, and show disdain for the choices being made on stage. We learn that many of the props ostensibly really came from her grandmother’s home in Detroit. She talks lovingly of the memories she shared there and how she thought her depiction of the men should progress and how disturbing it is to see it going another way.

The background she provides is in some ways informative, but the overall effect is akin to downshifting a racing car on the straightaways. It slows the momentum of the play to a crawl, and this is a piece that attempts such a lot it needs to cover as much ground as it can with all due vitality and haste. When the playwright gets out of the way the actors work valiantly to resume speed, but her intrusions continue. The story is a wild and varied concoction, which doesn’t need speed bumps.

Endeavoring to offer a complete synopsis would tax the patience of readers just as Ms. Pearl taxes the viewer with extensive exposition.

Suffice it to say that the ménage created by Louis joining the household unleashes a tsunami of ripple effects. Arnie, who has steeped himself in the teachings of a cultish guru, has a small business mowing lawns and Bob, who likes to dress up in costumes and wear wigs, works at a local ice rink driving the Zamboni. Neither of them has a strong grip on reality, but their jobs give them some kind of anchor in the real world. Louis’ work is in his imagination, a faculty that is compromised by his mental illness. His presence seems to precipitate mutual flights of fancy among the three men, when it isn’t interrupted by fits of depression and recrimination.

Ms. Pearl in one of her discordant disruptions tells us that the very edition of Peter Pan that is lying among the clutter on stage played a big part in her youth when it was read to her. She picks it up and recites a few lines. Thus the elements of that story are then fused into the script of the play. Arnie, Louis, and Bob become the Lost Boys.

A stagehand, which at first resists efforts to enlist her, slowly transforms into Peter Pan. Except when she becomes Taylor Swift to fulfill a fantasy that Bob obsesses about. Then there is the gambit in which Arnie and Bob try to find Louis a girlfriend using e-Harmony, reasoning that it will get him out of his depression and focus his attention outward.

At one point Bob transforms the house into Neverland and the Lost Boys swim around the living room, which is now the lagoon, and they all try to fly, with disastrous results for Bob.

The Peter Pan book, supposedly so precious to the playwright, gets thrown roughly across the stage onto the floor. Ms. Pearl perpetually ups the ante in this elaborate mind game, but undercuts the point of view often enough that everything becomes absurd. Treasured heirlooms, like the book, get roughly handled. The couch, which she claims is truly her grandmother’s, is jumped on and abused and so on until we ask ourselves “what is real, who can we trust, what are we to believe, and what are we to feel.”

If the point is that sentimentality leads to irrational isolation from reality, the play seems to go a long way round to illustrate it in a manner which is made less entertaining and less engaging by the didactic incursions of the playwright. When she steps aside some of the most frenetic moments experienced by the three men should rivet the attention of the viewer, yet they seem the most forced.

Since the characters are based on real people, Arnie, Louis, and Bob does have the effect of making you wish you could meet Katie Pearl’s actual family, and that is something. Yet you wish it might happen on a day when she is busy elsewhere.

Presented in a theater lab or an experimental setting, the production would be diverting. On stage at Trinity it doesn’t seem quite ready for prime time.

The three greatly accomplished actors representing the title characters give their all to make it seem so, however. They are three consummate performers, and anything they appear in is worth watching for them alone.

Julia Atwood, who has the role of the stagehand/Peter Pan/Taylor Swift is also very bright and very promising.

Don’t stay away from this show. Just be prepared to experience it as a work in progress starring some of most talented actors you will ever see.