What's it all about?

Bapbomb will leave viewers puzzled

Beneath the mass of confusing, undramatic, excessive detail called Bapbomb is what I suspect is an intelligent and politically progressive play. I say "I suspect" because this turgid two-acter by Hubert Grissom is so dense with paradoxical information that it's hard to know with any certainty what it's about or where its author stands.

Here's my best guess: This is supposed to be a play about the danger of not taking sides when great moral choices call for it. After all, its main character, Oxford, was once a Civil Rights champion, now stands up for the rights of despised Ku Klux Klan members and is losing his mind — possibly as punishment for his ambivalence. Meanwhile, his paralegal Eula, an African-American female Boy Scout leader, is pretending to help a vicious Klansman just so she can turn him in at the right moment and earn a reward.

Duplicity in both Oxford's and Eula's cases? But what does any of this have to do with Oxford's nephew, the attorney "Boat" — who may not really be his nephew — or Oxford's gofer Slaw Dog, Boat's male lover? And what about Hambric, Oxford's young associate, who's played, for some reason, by an older actor and who was murdered or who killed himself only a few weeks before the play begins?

Yes, I suspect there's a wise, forward-thinking tale beneath this miasma. But after seeing the play and then reading the manuscript, I'm still not sure what it's about. And in neither case was the experience very pleasurable.

Author Grissom's key failing: He doesn't understand dramatic action. Anyone can put talking characters on a stage, but action occurs usually when someone wants something, there's an obstacle, and then we watch him or her struggle to attain the desired object or goal. From the efforts of Oedipus to find his father's killer to the quest of Amanda Wingfield to find a gentleman caller for her daughter Laura, it's action of this sort that has always dominated Western drama.

Even in the least "active" of plays, Beckett's Waiting for Godot, for instance, the two tramps strive to find a way to make their waiting a little tolerable, to not give up, to not despair. And though there are exceptions — there are always exceptions in the arts — this dramatic engine is the one thing that links Hamlet and The Seagull, Medea and Death of a Salesman. We watch the struggle; we feel the suspense; we hang on to see what happens. Couldn't be simpler.

But there's almost no action of this sort in Bapbomb. Just about the only on-stage "event" is the effort of certain characters to get into an old safe in which Oxford has placed self-incriminating documents. But this action is also unlikely: We're told that Oxford wants the safe dumped in a lake, when it would make much more sense — and leave fewer clues — if he would just burn the contents and flush the debris down the toilet.

Still, the question of what's in the safe gives us something to think about. Nothing else in the play does — not the paragraphs of exposition linking Oxford to the infamous 1963 church bombing in which four young girls were killed; not Eula's endless phone conversations (on a wireless headset) with the Klansman named Joe-Bob; not a word spoken by Boat, whose entire purpose in the play remains baffling; and not the sexually suggestive (but not otherwise suggestive) scenes featuring Boat and Slaw Dog (the latter also snorts cocaine occasionally for no important reason).

There's talk about action, memory of action, confession of action, accusations of action — but ultimately not a bit of action. This is not drama, this is data.

And still, believe it or not, all the actors in this talkfest do an impressive job of impersonating the verbose characters they've been assigned. Steven Clark Pachosa as Oxford is credible as a man who's losing his mind (he'd make a striking Willy Loman) and who has so many conflicting loyalties that he must have lost track long ago of his true beliefs. As his conscience, the deceased Hamrick, Oliver Dill is a formidable presence. He's too old for the part, but he's charismatic and admirable and easily in command of things from his perch far above the stage.

Then there's Jim Wicker as Slaw Dog, the long-haired, bearded investigator and telephone repairman who always keeps his head when everyone around is losing theirs. I've watched Wicker on stage for years, and this is the best work I've ever seen him do — he's so calm and unflappable, there doesn't seem any information that can make him blink, much less flinch.

Slake Counts as Boat does a superb job as Slaw Dog's lover, an attorney who's flustered by the chaos around him and who's more tender inside than he'd like people to know. And Rhonda Easton as Eula is that wonderfully modern being, a perfectly self-sufficient woman who finds the male confusion that she passes through thoroughly unnecessary and entirely predictable.

Director Anna Brennen has staged this most impenetrable drama as if she understands every word of it, and R.T. Williams' law-office set is tolerably attractive at ground level, stunningly successful one floor up, where it shows us the wreckage of a church, a child's bicycle and a cross.

Michael Jevorkian's costumes are fine in most every case, and Keith Arsenault's lighting is quietly effective. The sound design includes representative protest songs of the '60s.

And still Bapbomb defies the understanding of this critic. Maybe it would work better as a novel. After all, in prose fiction, we expect lots of exposition, we can read at our own pace, we can go back and examine difficult passages. Author Grissom has real talent — there may be too much dialogue here, but it's usually intelligent and occasionally eloquent — but he doesn't yet grasp what makes drama distinct from other literary forms. And skillful as he is, he's no Shaw who can dazzle us with the constant brilliance of his arguments.

Yes, Bapbomb could be a novel — and a fine one at that. But it's long miles from being a satisfying play.

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