Written by Charles Cissel
Directed by Gabriel Vega Weissman
The legendary William Bonney, AKA Billy the Kid, has been called many things. Up until now, “self-absorbed” wasn’t one of them. After seeing the Burgess Group’s revisionist take on the famous bandit’s life, audiences may leave the theater wondering if Billy’s biggest problem was that he was born before the age of Facebook. In an effort, apparently, to put a human face on the Bonney myth, Charles Cissel has turned the Kid into a thinker rather than a man of action. It’s an intriguing idea: we already have action-packed movies about the West, why not, in a theater piece, focus on the psychological? It might have worked were it not for the fact that MUST’s central anti-hero engages in excess navel gazing and offers mostly tepid and undramatic responses to the people around him.
As the play begins, Billy (Brendan Dooling) and Pat Garrett (John Clarence Stewart) are cohorts who run various hustles across the saloons and cattle fields of the frontier. The two end up on opposite sides of the law as Billy falls in with a band of outlaws and embarks on his notorious crime spree. Mostly, though, Billy waxes philosophical, lamenting the futility of chasing horizons (as soon as you get there, the horizons’s gone, he muses repeatedly). Along the way, he is visited by apparitions. His dapper father (Marl Elliot Wilson), who abandoned the family when Billy was a boy, now struts about drinking fine whisky and offering vaguely cynical commentary on the nature of manhood. Billy’s self-sacrificing, consumptive mother (Sally Ann Triplett) did her best to raise Billy well, but couldn’t quell his penchant for trouble. For a time, Billy shacks up with Luisa (Meredith Antoian), who seems to be the fugitive’s last chance at happiness. Dooling and Antoian have a good chemistry. But the dialogue mostly stays in the cliché zone, with a petulant Luisa wishing Billy would just settle down and stop chasin’ those durned horizons. Ultimately, Billy begins to sound less like an 1880’s desperado than a 21st Century urbanite in the throes of a quarter-life crisis.
Far more compelling is the subplot involving the Kid’s nemesis. Like Bonney, Garrett is a man haunted by a legend he helped create but can never quite live up to. His transformation from con man to lawman is handled with wit and energy by Stewart, and the dramatic stakes are higher in his scenes with Billy than elsewhere in the play. More stage time devoted to the sheriff, and less to Billy’s ruminations, would have been a stronger choice.
Visually, the show is impressively staged: Alexander Woodward’s scenic design depict a barren but lyrical desert landscape, Zach Blane’s lighting shifts nimbly with the changing moods of the story, and Brooke Cohen Brown’s opulent costumes help to make the characters both true to life and larger than life. Their efforts, though appreciated, are sadly not enough to turn MUST into a must-see.
MUST continues through November 19,2017 at the Theater at St. Clements,
423 W 46th St, New York, NY 10036. Tickets: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/979546