Two men meet in a bar.
It’s the opening to many a story that at least one of the participants is going to later regret. That’s fortunately not the case in The Ballad of Bobby Botswain, the Harbor Stage Company’s current world première and the sort of story that has you laughing while it’s being told… and thinking about what it all meant later.
The bar (“the best dive bar in Fort Worth”) is empty when T. Peter (Jason Lambert) arrives. He’s meeting a buddy who doesn’t materialize, and meantime is somewhat bemused when Middy (Jonathan Fielding) arrives and strikes up a conversation with him. T. Peter has a problem, a mother dependent on pharmaceuticals she cannot afford. While Middy in the absence of a bartender creates some ultra-strong cocktails for the two men, T. Peter talks about his mysterious pharmacist friend in words that, to Middy, sound “mysterical”—though, truth be told, T. Peter loses his vocabulary altogether when trying to describe the effects the friend has on the very environment that surrounds them, and finishes a wonderfully funny exchange of charades by finally uttering the man’s name: Bobby Botswain.
It turns out that Middy is an undercover cop (who apparently got all his dialogue from watching Dragnet reruns) and is hot on the trail of the mysterious Botswain. He takes T. Peter to the police station to interrogate him, though they eventually work together on a “reenactment” of Botswain himself, a man who speaks “like Wimpy in the Popeye cartoons,” an affectation they hilariously practice around the famous “excuuuse me” line.
Eventually—through a series of mishaps—they end up in Botswain’s basement lair where he’s been hiding disguised pharmaceuticals for people like T. Peter’s mother. “These are all stolen!” exclaims Middy self-righteously, to which T. Peter responds, “they wouldn’t have to be if we could afford healthcare.” (It’s worth noting that this play was first imagined by Lambert and Fielding just before the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and it’s a dismal thought that vast numbers of people in this country still cannot afford the medicine they need.)
Botswain is indeed a “mysterical” figure throughout the play, and the ending—a reunion of sorts between the men three years after their first encounter—casts him as a sort of savior, changing their perceptions of the world around them and inspiring them to do good in that same world.
And it’s absolutely brilliant.
First of all, Lambert’s facial expressions are alone worth the price of admission; I would pay to see him do nothing but pantomime. He’s funny and endearing and just the slightest bit lost, and the combination is powerful. Fielding’s Middy is also a little lost—he just doesn’t know it yet—and in the 90 minutes of the play’s duration grows emotionally right before our eyes.
The comedic timing is exceptional. It’s lurking in the most unexpected places and there’s an unerring sense of rhythm running the gamut from subtle to slapstick. Both actors/directors are masters at knowing precisely how long to let a loaded moment sit and when to allow it to explode.
Making a serious, even deadly, subject funny doesn’t detract from its seriousness: it allows us to experience our fears and explore them in less dangerous ways. There’s a wondrous tension in this play between the subject matter—which is never presented too forcefully—and the silliness of some of the scenes.
And in the end, aren’t we all looking for a Bobby Botswain, who allows us to experience wonder and caring and maybe even a little rule-breaking in the name of humanity?
Come for the laughter; stay for the compassion. This world première allows for both. The Harbor Stage Company has done it again, with grace and humor and a story that will touch your heart long after you leave the theater.
photo credit: Edward Boches