While working at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Nachtrieb noticed that the White Castle between his hotel and the theater was advertising a “romantic” Valentine’s Day dinner, complete with white tablecloths, candles and table service.
Just below that offer on the restaurant’s marquee, another note designated the restaurant as a “safe place,” which Nachtrieb took to mean that, similar to the child protection service offered by fire stations and hospitals, unwanted babies could be left there.
Thus the character of Bob and his life story were born.
“Looking at those couple things – Valentine’s Day at White Castle, and you could also dump your baby there – sort of sparked for me, ‘There’s a great beginning for a story on a classic American character,’” Nachtrieb says from his home in San Francisco.
BOB: A Life in Five Acts begins a four-week run on Saturday, produced by Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre. The play was originally commissioned by South Coast Repertory and received a staged reading there in 2009 before premiering at the Humana Festival for New American Plays in 2011.
Nachtrieb, whose plays have been widely produced Off-Broadway and at theaters around the country, is best known locally through Furious Theatre Company productions of his unsettling Hunter Gatherers (2009) and the 2010 LA premiere of his apocalyptic romantic comedy boom, TCG’s most-produced (non-holiday themed or Shakespearean) play in the 2009-10 season. This year, Nachtrieb was named playwright-in-residence at Z Space in San Francisco as part of a Mellon Foundation-funded program. His upcoming works include The Totalitarians, commissioned by the National New Play Network.
In an episodic, picaresque-style narrative, BOB tells the story of a man born and abandoned in a White Castle bathroom on Valentine’s Day, who travels across the United States, determined to make something of his life and become a “great man.”
Nachtrieb says that Bob is a bit more of an optimist than he should be, considering the circumstances of his life and the various obstacles that get in the way of his desire to become well-known and respected.
“As the play goes on he gets more and more frustrated. He has big dreams and big ideals and does not want to let go of them. He is obsessed with being great,” Nachtrieb explains. “Not just being a good person — he’s not going to settle for that. He’s someone who wants to be known; he just doesn’t know how to do that or what that is.”
A recurring theme of the play is Bob’s obsession to “do something worthy of being on a plaque,” Nachtrieb says, and the play questions how “greatness” should be measured. Is it really about having your name chiseled onto a plaque or getting a hospital wing named after you, Nachtrieb asks, or is the definition more subtle, perhaps based on relationships and connections with other people?
Over coffee in Studio City, BOB director Chris Fields makes it clear that while the play tackles heartfelt themes, it is also a seriously funny piece.
“This play is like Monty Python morphed with Looney Tunes with a little Zen Buddhism,” Fields says. “It’s so amusing that you don’t trust it at first, [as if] it’s too much fun, it’s too silly and silly can’t be that good. And I think it is.”
Jeff Galfer plays Bob, while four other actors play the nearly three dozen characters that appear and reappear throughout Bob’s life (the ensemble members are double cast). Fields compares the play to stand-up comedy, since characters address the audience and, with 70 scenes, the narrative is extremely fast-paced.
Adding to the “whimsical” nature of the show is Fields’ decision to make all props representational — in other words, simply painted on cardboard.
“There’s a bed made out of Kleenex, there’s a flea circus, there’s a Chevy Malibu,” Fields says. One sequence depicts Bob and his adoptive mother Jeanine on a road trip across the country with Jeanine pointing out different landmarks. This posed obvious challenges for staging. “How do you do that in a car, talking about places the audience can’t see? I’m not going to give it away,” Fields teases.
For the audience, Fields says, BOB offers a refreshingly simple and positive message: You’re okay. It’s a dramatic departure from shows that Echo Theatre Company has produced in the past, he notes.
“The last play we did [A Family Thing] was a brutal, urban, gritty drama and we got great reviews and we sold out,” Fields says. “To tell you the truth, I sat there and I went, ‘This play is so unforgiving.’ Ultimately it was about redemption, but the pain in the play — you know tsuris [Yiddish for trouble or aggravation]? It was just too much.”
BOB, on the other hand, has a reassuring quality that Fields hopes will give audiences the confidence to accept that they are fine the way they are, without fame or fortune. That everyone is “someone.” Hopefully, after watching BOB, he says, some may be encouraged to treat people more kindly and appreciate what they have.
“All that stuff knocking around in your head, you don’t need that stuff really. You’re fine,” Fields says. “You’re gonna go home, you’re gonna read a good book, you got a cat you might love, a dog, you’re going to call your boyfriend, have a cup of coffee with your girlfriend. It’s okay.”
BOB: A Life in Five Acts, Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theater, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village, 90039. Opens Saturday. Fri-Sat 8 p.m., Sun 7 p.m. Through June 30. Tickets $25. www.EchoTheaterCompany.com. 877-369-9112.
**All BOB production photos by Megan J. Carroll.