Sunday, July 22, 2012

‘Bullet for Adolf’: Snack Food for the Mind, But Great Fun

Bullet for Adolf, the new play by Woody Harrelson and Frankie Hyman, is a screwball buddy comedy in which the pair of novice playwrights have thrown everything but the kitchen sink into relating a tale from the heady days of their youth, when the two became friends while working as part of a construction crew in Houston in the summer of 1983  

Who knows the truth of it, but Harrelson, best known as a television and movie star, has said he had always wanted to find a way to tell the story of this time in his life.  One day, during an appearance on The Tonight Show, Harrelson mentioned Hyman’s name, and shortly thereafter the two reconnected.  The result is Bullet for Adolf, now in previews at the New World Stages following a run in Toronto last year. 

To be honest, there is not much that resembles a coherent plot, but if you can get past that, you are likely to find yourself caught up in in the steady stream of one-liners and gags, as well as in the performances by a well-tuned ensemble of actors, all but two of whom are new to the New York production.

Mr. Harrelson has maintained a personal hand in the play, which he directs with a rapid-fire pacing aimed at keeping the audience constantly entertained. He keeps the action pumping with upbeat dance music of the era (Billy Joel, Elton John, Donna Summer), video images (shots of President Reagan and iconic TV shows like M*A*S*H and, of course, Cheers), homages to Sammy Davis, Jr. and Judy Garland, plus a couple of filmed sequences, including a very funny one that takes place in the backseat of a police car.    

The plot, such as it is, involves the theft of a luger that allegedly had been used in an unsuccessful effort to assassinate Hitler.  But that’s really only a gimmick to give the play some sort of purpose—what Alfred Hitchcock used to call a “MacGuffin,” the thing that is being pursued by everyone but which really serves the purpose of setting the action in motion. 

What Bullet for Adolf really is about is the relationships among a group of friends. To begin with, there are Zach (Brandon Coffey) and Clint (David Coomber), for whom the summer in Houston serves as a stopping off point to earn some money towards a planned acting career in New York. 

Coffey, as Zach, is the slacker’s slacker, seemingly serving as stand-in for Harrelson, while Coomber’s Clint is a deliciously neurotic extrovert.  Coomber embraces the role with manic intensity, running around like a headless chicken, often clad only in his underpants.  He and Coffey, who originated these roles, play off each other like Abbott and Costello, with great comic timing.

The pair is joined by Frankie (Tyler Jacob Rollinson, presumably the surrogate for Frankie Hyman), a street-wise transplant from New York’s Harlem, who finds himself a tad lost in the culture of life in Houston. 

All three work under the watchful eye of Jurgen (Nick Wyman), master mason, Hitler admirer, and owner of the stolen gun.   They are joined at various points in the proceedings by Dwight (a very quirky Lee Osorio), who calls himself “Dago-Czech” and considers his whiteness to be a mere inconvenient mismatch with his inner [N-word].   The men have their counterparts in Jackie (Shamika Cotton), who is gradually won over by Frankie’s not-inconsiderable charms; her friend Shareeta (Marsha Stephanie Blake), whom Zach is most attracted to; and Batina, Jergen’s 18-year-old daughter who used to be Zach’s girlfriend but who is now interested in Clint. 

As you might surmise, the play finds its humor among topics that are not exactly politically-correct or appropriate for family audiences.  Among the subjects of jokes are race, sexual orientation, gender, Nazis, pedophiles, and placentas, and all of the gags and jokes are fueled by beer, pot, and endless teasing.

In the hands of another playwright (e. g. David Adjmi, whose play 3C has been deemed off-putting by many viewers for its deliberately offensive jokes), Bullet for Adolf might have taken a dark turn, indeed.  Yet it is not within Harrelson and Hyman to treat any of their characters with anything but affection, and while they set up some potentially serious moments, these quickly dissipate. 

Call it snack food for the mind if you wish, but all told, Bullet for Adolf is a romp, offering up zany characters, a great ensemble cast, and Mr. Harrelson’s whomp ‘em stomp ‘em directing.  In short, the perfect mid-summer’s fare!

If you crave more of ProfMiller, check out the column, ProfMiller@The Theater, at  Recent reviews include "Triassic Parq The Musical," "Closer Than Ever," and "An Ideal Husband."  

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