What if Bobby Kennedy had never been assassinated? Would he have gone on to win the White House in 1968, thereby precluding the disastrous presidency of Richard Nixon? Would he have brought our troops home from Vietnam, ending an already protracted war? Would he have been the voice of moral clarity to bind Americans together and ward off the culture wars that still rage in 2018? Or (more likely), would he have irritated his detractors with his successes and disappointed his followers with his compromises (the standard fate of every politician)? We’ll never know; but in his new solo show, Kennedy: Bobby’s Last Crusade, David Arrow gives us 90 minutes to dream.
Robert Francis Kennedy was the younger brother of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He also served as his Attorney General, governance being a family affair for these reticulate royals of our republic. Robert is the Junior Senator from New York and running for the highest office in the land when this play begins. He’ll have to beat Eugene McCarthy in a few Democratic primaries to be taken seriously, no easy feat since thousands of enthusiastic young Americans have gone “Clean for Gene.” And then there’s the party’s presumptive nominee and seasoned Machiavellian, incumbent President Lyndon Johnson. We watch RFK navigate the three months from announcing his candidacy to his assassination in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel, just moments after winning the California primary.
Since they cover two men that couldn’t have been more different, it’s a bit surprising that Kennedy: Bobby’s Last Crusade bears a striking resemblance to I’m Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce, Ronnie Marmo’s solo tribute to the iconoclast stand-up. Both shows open with the subject’s death, and then backtrack to reveal how we got there. Both mix the actual words of the subject with informal first-person commentary that speculates about what they were actually thinking. And both include monologues that are posthumously redemptive or prescient, often to a laughable extent: At one point, Kennedy confidently asserts that America will have a black president in 40 years, and we roll our eyes at his incredible foresight.
Like Marmo, Arrow is best when he’s lifting directly from his subject’s act: the speeches that RFK delivered all over the country in his quest to win the Democratic nomination. In the age of Trump, it’s hard to imagine a viable presidential candidate quoting Tacitus and Sophocles on the campaign trail, yet that’s exactly what Kennedy did. Despite his patrician airs, RFK comes through as a man (like his three-initialed forebears) genuinely concerned with the welfare of the poor and oppressed. It’s possible to get misty-eyed at his principled stand against poverty and his advocacy for universal health care. It’s also possible to become enraged when considering that we’re still talking about the same issues 50 years later.
There’s a noticeable difference between Arrow’s performance of these speeches (historical events that one can actually listen to and mimic) and his more informal rap sessions with the 2018 audience. Even his accent, crisp as a New England autumn during the speeches, tends to become soggy during the moments of original text. Still, Arrow is spot-on when it comes to Kennedy’s fidgeting arms as he brushes his buoyant hair out of his eyes.
Director Eric Nightengale delivers a neat staging that clearly delineates between Kennedy’s actual words and the original text, while Katherine R. Mitchell’s projections keep us up to date with the progress of the campaign trail. James Morgan’s set conjures an ethereal hotel ballroom decorated with campaign posters (four of which Mitchell is able to change to reflect geography) and a light dusting of confetti. Bizarrely, newspaper pages seem to be decoupaged to the floor. Miriam Nilofa Crowe’s shadowy lighting and Ben Scheff’s unsettling binaural sound design give the Theatre at St. Clement’s the feel of a politician’s purgatory, a holding cell in which Bobby must repeatedly relive his final campaign until he has atoned for his sins. But what are those?
Unfailingly sympathetic to his subject, Arrow gives us little sense of RFK’s shortcomings, like his brinksmanship in Cuba or zeal for electronic surveillance. Arrow’s Bobby does admit to wiretapping Martin Luther King Jr., but insists that it was all J. Edgar Hoover’s fault. Such apologetics render Bobby’s Last Crusade less an honest bio-play than a canonization. It’s hard to blame Arrow in his quest to find a hero. If Tuesday’s election proves anything, it’s that without a charismatic standard-bearer, political victories will always be modest at best. Bobby’s Last Crusade is a sincere tribute to a Democratic hero of the past, giving us plenty to ponder in choosing the hero of the future.