Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons
Since its first off-Broadway production in 2007, Sam Shem and Janet Surrey’s Bill W. and Dr. Bob has been produced in about thirty states across the U.S., as well as Australia, Canada and England. The play is based on the lives of William Wilson (Bill W.) and Dr. Robert Smith (Dr. Bob), the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous.
On July 16, 2013 a new production of Bill W. and Dr. Bob officially opened at Soho Playhouse, under the direction of Seth Gordon. The response was so strong that not only has the play’s run been extended to the end of March 2014, but also one-fourth of the seats in the 45-seat playhouse can be given to people in the recovery community who could otherwise not afford to see the play.
How can one account for this tremendous success? In the first place, Bill W. and Dr. Bob deals with a problem that touches many people, either personally or through friends and relatives. Secondly, the story is fascinating, as well as moving. Wilson (Patrick Boll) was a stockbroker who turned to liquor after the crash of 1929. Smith (Steve Brady) was an Akron surgeon, a 30-year alcoholic who often went into the operating room drunk. Their unlikely meeting and bonding not only allowed them to save themselves, but to go on and create an organization that would save countless others.
Wilson’s wife Lois (Denise Cormier), and Smith’s wife, Anne (Deborah Hedwall), also play significant roles in the story, if only for their endurance, as do a succession of drunks and their wives, played by Michael Frederic and Sarah Nealis.
One really wants to love this play. The acting is certainly fine. The men have really nailed it when it comes to stumbling around the stage and alternating belligerence and contrition. The women are always appropriately angry and anguished. And the story of the two men is surely inspiring.
However Bill W. and Dr. Bob left this reviewer cold. Perhaps there were just too many scenes, giving the play a disconnected quality. Or it could be that the play offers no real reasons why these men became alcoholics in the first place. Wilson’s problems with the stock market are not really made clear and Smith is a successful physician. Both have loving wives.
One may argue that alcoholism is a disease, but even if this is true, it certainly does not make good drama. Stories about sick people are only interesting when the disease relates in some way to their personality.
In the end, none of the characters in Bill W. and Dr. Bob is of particular interest apart from the fact that they are part of a larger story. So if alcohol is not one of your primary interests, this play may not be one either.
Bill W. and Dr. Bob, at Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street, through March 30, 2014.