Sunday, November 29, 2015

Review: RFK

RFK, produced by New City Stage Company, directed by Ginger Dayle, written by Jack Holmes, featuring Russ Widdall, reviewed by Wendy Rosenfield.

Review: RFK


By Wendy Rosenfield
For the Inquirer 

Before New City Stage Company’s return engagement of RFK begins, Ren Manley’s collection of vintage black and white commercials and film clips, projected onto an onstage wall, sets the scene. There’s an obituary reel for Marilyn Monroe -- that favorite of Bobby’s big brother Jack -- as well as an ad touting the luxury of oil heat and Don Knotts schooling the young Ron Howard about tough-guy behavior. When the lights dim, we hear the unmistakable muffled pop of a television’s button turning off. 

There’s no shortage of nostalgia tripping in this production, with even more evocative assists by Procol Harum, Jefferson Airplane and other bands from the era. The multimedia effects work both on boomers, who remember exactly where they were when they heard the terrible news, and younger audiences living through their own era of dashed hopes and undeclared wars. 

Jack Holmes’ script traces its way through Robert Kennedy’s final four years, after his brother’s assassination and during his run for the New York Senate, the births of the last two of his 11 children, his presidential bid, and the moment of his untimely death. Holmes portrays Bobby as an insecure but loyal little brother who finally found his purpose when he stepped out of JFK’s shadow and aligned himself with civil rights leaders to fight poverty and racial injustice. 

There’s a lot of information contained in the show’s two acts, and only one man, Russ Widdall, delivering it. While Ginger Dayle’s direction favors staccato lights up/lights down and actor-exit-and-reenter scene changes, Widdall tempers these more obvious tricks, as well as some of Holmes’ clunkier segues. The elision of RFK’s memory of Jackie Kennedy’s backyard football catch (“Isn’t that what they call it? A bomb?”) with a Kennedy/Johnson telephone conversation (“Limited bombing? But what’s a limited bombing?”) is easier to forgive when Widdall’s delivering it.

That Kennedy Brahmin manner of speaking goes a long way in helping Widdall’s transformation -- he’s bigger and older-looking than Bobby was -- but, to his credit, he never allows the most famous accent in politics to gain top billing. His portrayal is vulnerable and understated. His Bobby remembers his family with eyes that reflect fear and admiration, challenges his enemies with a sudden fire that dissipates as quickly as it bursts forth. At the performance I attended, several older audience members left the show wiping away tears; if that’s not a resonant endorsement of Widdall’s Kennedy-style charisma, I don’t know what is.

Playing at: Second Stage at the Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom St., Philadelphia. Through Sun., Nov. 24. Tickets: $10 to $35. Information: 215-563-7500 or

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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