“The Mild, Mild West”
The big question raised by Must—Charles Cissel’s new play about the young Wild West gunslinger and killer of eight, Billy the Kid (Henry McCarty a.k.a. William Bonney: 1859-1881)—is why Bruce Willis chose to moonlight from his busy acting career to serve as its lead producer. Some worthwhile things are on display, like good actors, authentic enough 19th-century costumes (Brooke Cohen Brown), an attractive set (Alexander Woodward), and exceptional atmospheric lighting (Zach Blane). Thus only one thumb down, not two. All that’s needed is a decent play, even a half-decent one.
|Brendan Dooling, John Clarence Stewart. Photo: Michael Kushner.|
Instead we get a lugubrious, nonlinear, plotless series of talky, pretentious, mostly two-character, dream-like scenes featuring Billy (Brendan Dooling) wandering around in a desert-like landscape filled with flat rock formations, and talking to frock-coated Sheriff Pat Garrett (John Clarence Stewart), the famous lawman who shot him dead; Billy’s sorrowful mother, Catherine (Sally Ann Triplett); his drunken dad, McCarty (Mark Elliott Wilson); and a symbolic, moon-obsessed, God-fearing, young woman, Luisa (Meredith Antoian), whose precise background (Indian, Mexican?) and relationship to Billy eludes me, although she claims to be his "lover, mother, sister, friend."
The characters, sometimes Billy himself, are either ghosts or memories, and the substance of the play surrounds his guilt-racked attempts to come to terms with his deeds and everyone else's place in his violent life.
While the conversations occasionally reveal friction between Billy and the others, the bleak, non-humorous dialogue is so artificial, elliptical, and metaphorical—like the constant references to finding oneself “in the horizon”—that Billy can’t meet his maker fast enough despite the show’s only one-hour running time.
The real-life story of Billy the Kid, which has been adapted and distorted in countless movies and other media, is rife with theatrical promise, but Cissel, who dribbles historical information into the conversations but also takes liberties with the facts, is more concerned with his characters’ personal thoughts than dramatic action. The most significant event is the Kid’s death, staged by director Gabriel Vega Weissman by having Sheriff Garrett shoot him in the back, something unsupported by historical accounts (like, among other things, having Garret shown as Billy’s friend).
Unless you need to notch another wild, wild West show (like the York’s Desperate Measures) on your theatrical gunstock, the mild, mild Must is a theatrical must not.
The Theater at St. Clement’s
423 W. 46th St., NYC
Through November 19