Bill W. and Dr. Bob
The Soho Playhouse
When Bill W. (Patrick Boll) came out in the first moments of this show and announced, “My name’s Bill W. and I’m an alcoholic,” about 70 percent of the audience responded, “Hi Bill!” It was as if they were at a real meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, the organization that Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith created in the mid-1930s to save themselves as much as others. The play is about the group’s founding, and it was written by a married couple, Sam Shem and Janet Surrey, a doctor and a psychologist. Bill W. and Dr. Bob has been presented all over the country, and it has a large advance at the Soho Playhouse. Most of the people who have bought tickets are in the recovery community, and it almost seems like there’ll be free coffee and donuts in the back of the house for the enthusiastic crowd.
In the program, Shem and Surrey write about how they first thought of doing this play and how “The Muse tapped us on our shoulders.” Well, they may have been tapped on their shoulders by something, but it was most definitely not The Muse. Bill W. and Dr. Bob is a series of crude skits that tell us about the early lives of Bill and Bob as they live out their stretch as alcoholics before coming to know each other. Though we spend a good deal of time with Bill and Bob (Timothy Crowe), and their wives Lois (Denise Cormier) and Anne (Deborah Hedwall), we never get a sense of the agony of their lives, the ordeal of their marriages. Wanting to provide a simple inspirational tale, Shem and Surrey smooth out all the rough edges, leaving very little to either inspire or interest us.
The two leads are a big part of the problem here. As Bill W., the strapping Boll speaks as loudly as possible and that’s about it. Far worse is Crowe, who plays to the audience as a kind of Adorable Grump and tries to get laughs even when Bob is breaking his wife’s heart. All its good intentions can’t change the fact that this isn’t really a play, even though it’s been advertised as one—it’s a meeting. “Isn’t it good?” asked a lady sitting next to me during intermission. I think I actually said, “Yes,” because she seemed so sweet, even though I had been suffering through it and wondering how long the second act would be. “It’s just like the book, but more detail, right?” At that, I just closed down and tried to ignore her as nicely as I could. The people in the audience had all had trouble with drink, and I’ve had plenty of trouble with drink myself. But this paper-thin representation of the founding of such an important group does nothing to truly help or enlighten anyone.
Photo by Kevin Berne