“The Trip Back Down”, John Bishop’s NASCAR melodrama now strutting the stage at the Whitefire Theatre, had its Broadway premiere in 1977 and feels as if it never left that year when Carter was president, the Coneheads were on SNL and gas was sixty-five cents a gallon.
The primary hurdle for me is that the play is so agonizingly old hat in every fashion. The story is the stuff of bad TV movies and low budget films that go straight to Netflix oblivion.
Bobby Horvath (Nick Stabile) is a former “Rising Star” of NASCAR whose star is now stuck well below the penthouse. After a mishap on the race course, Bobby finds himself in a mid-life crisis which unfortunately goes on to show he has more “mid” than “life”. He feels himself drawn back to the small Ohio town he was so eager to escape from where he reunites with the family he scorned, and seeks out the wife and child he abandoned.
Pretty standard fare, which would require a writer of scope or ingenuity to lift above the level of heartland soap opera; the late Mr. Bishop, who died in 2006, wrote the book for the stage musical of “Elmer Gantry” and the screenplay for the 1989 Gene Hackman crime-drama The Package, was not up to the task.
Now it’s up to the cast and director.
The cast does it best.
As Bobby, Stabile’s soul searching plays out as if on a tape loop, travelling in a circular route from attitude, angst, alcohol, anger and back again. Director Terri Hanauer has turned to some multimedia frazzle dazzle in support of Bobby’s flashbacks that drops the audience in the midst of a roaring race track, perhaps to connect the fury and chaos of NASCAR to Bobby’s furious and chaotic life.
But it feels less like Bobby is burning up the road behind the wheel of a V8 on the Rockingham Speedway and more like he’s atop a gaudy and bejeweled carousal horse. As he circles around his disapproving father (a solid Larrs Jackson), his blue collar brother and frustrated sister-in-law (Kevin Brief and Meredith Thomas), and the wife and child he deserted (Eve Danzeisen and Lily Nicksay) Bobby reaches out for the brass ring and misses.
So, I fear does the audience.
A quick side bar: I recently attended a much touted awarding winning drama on the west side.
In a word it “sucked”. In two words, it “really sucked”.
My fellow critics had nothing but praise for it.
Wondering if I had missed something, I checked out the original reviews from its New York premiere at the Manhattan Theatre Club. They all extolled the play’s “power” and “punch”, which puzzled me as I found it had all the power and punch of a sun warped 45 of Tiny Tim’s rendering of “Tip Toe Through the Tulips”.
And then I saw it.
The first act of the play in question ends as a man is about to have his leg amputated. In the New York production, the director did not fade the lights out as that grisly surgery was about to commence, oh no, instead he showed the whole gory procedure down to sawing right through the bone.
So that opening night New York audience stood in the foyer going “The blood! All that blood!”, and “Oh my God, I nearly fainted!” instead of “That first act really explained nothing about those relationships.”
As for the play’s success since? Check out Newton’s first law of motion*.
What I am implying is that rather than taking us into every blackout with Stabile standing center stage and staring out at the audience with the ruggedness of a Lady Clairol commercial, a bit of audacity was needed. Stabile has the look, but not the substance to make this play work.
Others in the cast fare better. Robb Derringer as Super Joe, Bobby’s racetrack crony, a character somewhat based on Robby Gordon, chews the scenery with such panache it actually looks kinda of tasty. Thomas, Danzeisen, Jackson and Nicksay all manage to pull solid moments from the meager pickings the playwright has given them. Karl Ebergen as the geeky, hero-worshipping Chuck is given the best writing of the piece and knows exactly what to do with it.
This play might be right up your alley if you have the full run of the series “Dallas” on DVD, or are fanatics about NASCAR. Myself now, I have no appreciation of the melodramatic, and as far as NASCAR goes…well it’s not really a race if you’re just going around in circles.
There is nothing I found wretched in this production, I simply found nothing.
*”I am that external force, the voice in the wilderness is mine, I am the watcher of the Watchman that constantly says, ‘Hey buddy, your fly is down.’”