The Boy in the Gray Flannel Suit
Williamson, Kevin D., New Criterion
Something one notices about the audiences at Manhattan's 59e59 theater, just off Park Avenue: They don't look like they've come very far to get there. They embody elite comfort and complacency, a fact that actor Dan Lauria, playing Jimmy Hoffa in Good Bobby, puts to sharp comic effect: He enters through the audience, greeting "friends" and slapping backs, pointing out faces in the crowd--"Now there's a working man!"--as the half-abashed theatergoers, who look like they have never been so much as downwind of a Teamster, smile nervously: They're in on the joke, and they are the joke. (An earlier production at 59e59, A Lifetime Burning, merely sneered at the haute bourgeoisie from within a miniature Design Within Reach showroom, and was much less satisfactory.) Good Bobby is about the career and Oedipus complex of Robert F. Kennedy, but Hoffa is in many ways the hero of the story, and Mr. Lauria is quite something in the role.
Brian Lee Franklin plays RFK and, having written the play, has no one but himself to blame for the demands of the role--he is seldom off stage--or for the inadequacies of the script. He looks the part and the costuming comes off as delightfully natural, something possibly attributable to Mad Men's revival of mid-century style. (Should you desire to become the man in the gray flannel suit, Brooks Brothers will sell you its limited-edition Don Draper number for $1,000, but Joe Biden's obviously botched transplant operation suggests that Kennedy hair is a genetic condition.) And the vibe is as retro as a vinyl 45 when the play opens with the primal Kennedy scene: a woman cleaning up a man's mess. In this case it is Kennedy's long-suffering and much abused secretary, Angie (Sile Bermingham), tidying up his atrocious desk, which is covered in papers and food wrappers. Mr. Franklin's RFK enters the scene equally disheveled, from the aristocratic thatch of his hair to his barely tucked-in shirt. (He looks like he sleeps in his clothes because he does, at least during the Cuban Missile Crisis.) He is a mess, and then he opens his mouth. A half-stifled titter trickled through the audience at Kennedy's first words, delivered in a hellacious Boston honk sounding more suited to a Tuesday-night nightclub mimic's act than to the theater. Not having been born during Kennedy's lifetime, I have no living memory of the sound of his voice, but I found myself thinking: Surely, Robert F. Kennedy did not speak quite like that. I was wrong: A video of Kennedy's 1964 convention speech contradicts me. Mr. Franklin's version is an exaggeration, but it is not a cartoon. (It is difficult to imagine that anybody with such a pungent regional accent could rise as high in modern American politics now--George W. Bush's mixed and mild one estranged him from many self-anointed suburban sophisticates.)
The New York Times has complained that Mr. Franklin's play is more of a high-minded and improving history lesson than it is a work of drama. That criticism is exactly wrong. It is precisely as a work of biography that the play comes up short: The Robert F. Kennedy of history--a friend of Joe McCarthy who had no recorded compunction about ordering illegal wiretaps to spy on Martin Luther King, Jr.--is obscured in this play. He is replaced by a vulnerable man-boy who, at one point, goes so far as to deliver a homily about his inner child to his father ("I hope he'll forgive me"). In context, it's not as bad as it sounds, but let's remind ourselves that Robert F. Kennedy was a conniving Machiavellian brute of the first order, and Joe Kennedy the mobbed-up Nazi-sympathizing son of a saloon-keeping Irish stevedore. These men were not sentimentalists: Robert F. Kennedy's presidential campaign in effect began on November 22, 1963.
Perhaps Mr. Franklin felt the need to sanitize Kennedy's actual story, particularly his robust and unapologetic anticommunism. (Funny, the things for which one must apologize.) This Kennedy is a reluctant politician--even his sincere Catholicism is repurposed as a Freudian dodge, a substitute Father to interpose between himself and his actual father, rather than being understood as the basis for his sometimes withering moralization of politics. …