As Bob searches for the meaning of life, he travels around the country having unusual, symbolically resonant experiences and near-magically unlikely chance encounters with all sorts of quirky folks along the way. Some may enjoy this self-consciously offbeat tale of one man’s quest for greatness in the new play “Bob” by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, at Aurora Theatre through February 10. But a word of warning: if it starts to grate, you’re in for an uncomfortable, unhappy two hours of Bobness.
The Hollywood term “meet-cute” refers to a situation in which a movie’s romantic couple meets for the first time in a way that’s considered quirky, charming or, yes, cute. Bob doesn’t just meet the love of his life cutely; he meets everyone cutely. He travels-cute. He grows up-cute. He eats-cute. He gets rich quick-cute. He’s even born cute.
Bob is born on Valentine’s Day in the restroom of a White Castle restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky, or so it is said. Literally, so it is said: a chorus of five narrators, who tell the story and take on the roles of everyone Bob meets, recounts his life from the very beginning to the very end, often preceding each incident with the weighty pronouncement “it is said,” as if reassembling anecdotal accounts of the historic life of a great man.
It is said that Bob is abandoned by his real mother and that an employee at the White Castle falls in love with the infant and raises him as her own, taking him on the run to avoid having to hand him over to authorities. They travel around the country, and she gives the quickly growing Bob (played by adult actor Dan Triandiflou throughout) a rolling education at America’s great museums, tourist sites and roadside attractions.
Eventually, his adoptive mother dies-cute, and Bob then sets out alone to discover his purpose in life and his origins. A quick genetic test would have saved him some trouble, confirming that this optimistic, wide-eyed-innocent seeker who travels the world having a series of incredibly unlikely encounters is a close relative of Forrest Gump.
The cast that Aurora has assembled does the best job with the material it’s given. Wendy Melkonian’s funny re-creation of a circus animal act, Veronika Duerr’s turn as Bob’s tender-but-driven adoptive mother and Doyle Reynolds as Bob’s hobo father are like breaths of fresh air. But the cast occasionally doesn’t delve deeply enough into the extremes of character sketch. (I don’t think that would have helped the big picture much, but it does seem to be what the script calls for.) In the end, the building blocks of the production — a troupe of players in overalls and sneakers, the carnival-circus set, the road-sign-sized rungs of the bildungsroman – are redolent of mime, hippie street theater and “Pippin,” which are decidedly not for everyone.
We’re meant to accept Bob as a sort of bravely innocent, defiantly individual everyman confronted with a cruelly indifferent, often blandly conformist, unimaginative world. But the play aims to be too much of a crowd-pleaser — Bob is too much of a Gumpy idiot savant and his turn toward the jaded is too cartoonish — for it ever to develop much interest as a philosophical consideration, even a whimsical one, of individual search for purpose.
And the meaning that’s found at the end (spoiler alert!) is greeting-card simple. It’s the allegorical journey of “Peer Gynt” meeting the one in “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” and somehow “Bob” manages to pull in only the worst of both worlds.