If working in construction means endlessly placing bricks, then all the male characters in director and co-writer Woody Harrelson’s new comedy Bullet for Adolf at New World Stages are construction workers. If all it takes to create a successful play is a couple of loud, albeit funny, characters and a random series of events then Bullet for Adolf is a successful play.
Set in 1983 in some podunk town in what we may assume is Texas, Bullet for Adolf tells the story of Frankie (Tyler Jacob Rollinson), Zach (Brandon Coffey), Dago-Czech (Lee Osorio) and Clint (Brandon Coffey) four wild men that shouldn’t be friends but are, three of whom are roommates.
To say that describing what the play is about is almost impossible would be a bit of an overstatement, but mostly true. According to the press release, Bullet for Adolf can be summed up in one sentence: “nothing changes the present like a blast from the past.” In all honesty, this seems to me to be an attempt to justify why there is a blast in the form of a fake-gun shot directed at the audience in the second act.
Bullet For Adolf is meant to be a dramatization of the summer of 1983 in which pre-Cheers Harrelson and co-writer Frankie Hyman met and lived together in Houston as construction workers. In an interview with the New York Times, Harrelson describes that summer as, “all about sitting in that living room with funny stories happening.”
Unsurprisingly, that is exactly how the play comes off as well: a series of funny events tied together by a friendship that, however true and strong it may be in real life, doesn’t seem all that valuable on stage. In fact, Frankie (written after Hyman) is sent to prison because of a crime that Zach (Harrelson’s character) commits.
In essence, the play is about a group of people that become friends despite how terrible they each are as people and how much they hate each other. There are almost no redeeming qualities about most of the characters except for Shareeta (Marsha Stephanie Blake) and Jackie (Shamika Cotton), who are two smart and forward-thinking love interests that get caught up in several man-made messes. Perhaps the only bad thing about these two women is that they become friends with the rest of the characters.
Putting all that aside, Bullet for Adolf has redeeming qualities, namely its dialogue and the magnificent performance of its actors. Although the plot is confusing (why an 18-year old girl has no friends at her birthday party but her father’s construction workers and their love interests is beyond me) the play is actually hilarious. Brandon Coffey may play a sleazy, dirty, lying jackass as Zach but he does play him well, delivering exquisitely funny lines like “I’m not bilingual but I know that armoire is French for love,” to a T.
Nick Wyman is magnificent as the German Nazi sympathizer and owner of the construction company Jurgen who gets his Luger (the play’s namesake) stolen at the end of the first act. Shannon Garland plays his daughter Batina who is an annoying, air-headed 18 year-old. Garland does her best in this role, the play’s weakest and least funny, and really takes Batina to another level of headache-inducing teenage annoyance.
Blake and Cotton are sassy and wonderful as the two love interests; however, the performance that steals the show is that of David Coomber in his role as the unconvincingly straight Clint who spends 60% of his stage time in nothing but tighty-whities and a silk robe. Coomber is explosive and hysterical, performing some of the best lines of the play in such a way that makes the whole audience fall in love with him.
The stage itself was interesting, as set designer Dane Laffrey chose to present the setting in a deconstructed construction-site space that became a living room and dining room when needed with some added wall paneling and props. There were also giant screens above the stage, which adds a multimedia element to the production in the form of mash-ups of music videos, political archives and movie scenes from the 80. These have almost no connection to the plot but still manage to provide entertainment in the form of Prince and Michael Jackson.
In the end, nothing makes for a good show like a theatre full of breathless audience members who can’t stop laughing at the characters’ dialogues. Bullet for Adolf is a successful comedy but not a successful play, and perhaps Harrelson and Hyman should be sitcom writers instead. They have great actors, funny characters and riotous humour, but not the plot or emotional depth to hold these elements together on stage.