Director and writer Brendan Russo has seemingly recognized the dramatic potential in the tragic story of the Booth family whose ranks held America’s first great acting dynasty as well as its first presidential assassin. Unfortunately, while Russo may have recognized that drama, he hasn’t presented it on stage in his “My Brother” currently one of the many offerings of the Hollywood Fringe.
Part of the problem is that Russo never decides on who is the focal point of his drama. Despite the play’s title being “My Brother”, John Wilkes (Adam Wylie) occupies more stage time than either his brother Edwin (Vince Major) or sister Asia (Eryn Guyton).
But a far larger problem is Russo blithely passing over the resounding conflict inherent in the history of the Booths, and instead offering up long repetitive scenes of John Wilkes Booth whining that do nothing towards enhancing the plot. This fault is most tellingly revealed in his failing to present any progression of the conflict between John Wilkes and his staunchly pro-Union brother Edwin.
Russo has placed all his pieces on the chess board, but seems unaware of how to move them. His cast, for the most part, is young, and it is difficult to determine where to fault them when the material and director provides them with such scant foundation, therefore I will say nothing in that regard.
However, I must question one bit of casting, and in doing so break a promise I made to myself never to engage in John Simon-like criticism of any actor’s physicality.
John Wilkes Booth was the heart throb of his day. In 20th Century Fox’s 1955 Prince of Players, a film bio of Edwin Booth staring Richard Burton, the role of John Wilkes Booth was played by Hollywood beefcake John Derek. In Russo’s casting of Adam Wylie as Lincoln’s assassin all I kept thinking while watching him was “ginger in a bad wig.” (Sorry, Adam.)
In the final analysis, neither a youthful cast nor a bad wig can be blamed for the play’s failure.
Drama is expressed in conflict and conflict is expressed in action. Russo has offered his audience little in the way of either conflict or action, the result being a history lecture masquerading as a play. And not a very good history lecture at that.