Thursday, November 02, 2006

RFK (Cleveland Play House)

Interesting, but not compelling view of Robert Kennedy at CPH

“War. It’s a terrible tragedy.” “Violent revenge is not American.” “We don’t know why we are at war.” “The dollars are being wasted on the war.” Sound like assertions from 2006 political advertisements? No, these are statements made by Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy, President John F. Kennedy’s youngest brother, who is the subject of ‘RFK,’ now on stage at the Cleveland Play House.

‘RFK,’ which enjoyed an extended run Off-Broadway, is a one-man show which was written by and stars Jack Holmes .

The production notes for the play, which was originally entitled, ‘THE AWFUL GRACE OF GOD: A PORTRAIT OF ROBERT F. KENNEDY,’ state, “By late summer 1964, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, still in shock and consumed with grief over the assassination of his older brother was at a crossroad in his life. The presidential election was approaching and President Lyndon Johnson finally called him to the White House to end months of speculation over whether or not he would be Johnson’s Vice Presidential running mate. The result of that meeting, and the subsequent direction of RFK’s life, are the focus of the play. Going backward and forward in time, we see Kennedy grow from husband to father to grieving brother to New York senator to outspoken critic of the war in Vietnam to Democratic Presidential candidate."

The play tries to earnestly trace RFK’s successes, his bi-polar like personality, and his conflicts with Lyndon Johnson and Edgar Hoover. Unfortunately, the action is too obvious, often too patterned to grab and hold our attention. Part of the problem may be that, from the start, anyone who knows history, knows the outcome. There is no mystery. And, though there are humorous moments, especially when the words seem like 2006 comments about President Bush and his administration, the goings-on often sound like a long campaign speech and commercial sound bites.

As Holmes transitions from Kennedy’s various offices, to the senate floor, to stops on the campaign trail, to his chaotic home, the audience is lead by David Weiner’s effective lighting, James C. Swonger’s impactful sound design and Neil Patel’s visually clarifying back wall of patchwork of geometric shapes, which change from flags to mood enhancers.

Though his accent waivers, and he too systematically and too often fixes his flopping hair, Holmes is generally effective. In fact, his acting is basically better than his writing. There is a lot of sentimental language, platitudes and slogans which attempt to represent reality. It skims the surface without always delving into causes for the speeches and reactions.

Yes, Robert F. Kennedy was shy, yet intense. He, according to the script, “Saw wrong and tried to right it…saw suffering and tried to heal it…saw war…and tried to stop it.” But, what really caused a rich kid from a politically astute family who married a strong dominant woman, to be who he was. We really don’t find that out.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: For those who are fascinated by the Kennedy legend, who like biographies, and are willing to put aside the shallowness of the writing, ‘RFK’ should be of interest. It’s not great theatre, it’s good theatre.