Most anyone can predict the final scene of Jack Holmes’ one-man staging of the last days of Bobby Kennedy, but the inevitable assassination is the only nod to the expected in “R.F.K.” Otherwise, the play hurtles through the theater with surprising force, expanding the well-known facts of a politician’s life into a stirring metaphor for the struggle to believe in governments and leaders.
Holmes gives star-making turns as both writer and performer by striking an elusive balance between intellect and emotion. On one level, his Bobby Kennedy is a deeply feeling man, rocked by everything from grief to doubt to joy as he retraces the consequences of publicly breaking with Lyndon Johnson and choosing to run for president himself. We know (because he tells us) about the insecurities that keep him wary of the spotlight and the ideals that nevertheless push him to call for a more compassionate America, to demand “better liberals and better conservatives.”
But Holmes is too sophisticated to let his play devolve into stump-speech sentimentality. He has artistic statements to make that are larger than the character, and he delivers them subtly enough to demand an audience’s constant attention. Most often, his Kennedy will take some phrase from an earlier anecdote and repeat it in a new context, never stopping to acknowledge the juxtaposition.
Therefore, it’s the crowd that’s left to see the twin meaning in, say, the “Romeo and Juliet” quote that Bobby delivers after JFK’s assassination. The lines — “When he shall die, take him and cut him out into little stars” — not only reference an earlier story about listening to Shakespeare recordings in the bathroom, but also make a swift, elegant point about the mythologizing of leaders. These connections zip by quickly, but they gain resonance for never being belabored.
As a performer, Holmes switches as easily as his script between metaphors and narrative. In any given moment, Kennedy may be talking to us, to some unseen character or to himself. His point of view can change without warning, but these rapid shifts only give the show energy.
With his droopy eyes and perpetually furrowed brow, Holmes is an excellent vessel for his play’s urgent mission to locate empathy in the way we’re governed. He looks as though some raw feeling is always breaking over him, and director Larry Moss molds this expressiveness into spellbinding work. Holmes delivers the type of perf that is so well-controlled it seems electrically impulsive.
Boosting his work are two remarkable designers. David Weiner’s lights and Neil Patel’s set work in constant tandem to underscore Bobby’s emotions. The set is essentially a massive wall, filled like a Rothko painting with rectangles of various sizes and colors. Weiner lights them in shifting, abstract patterns that support the mood of the moment. And sometimes, he highlights a blue box and a red one, suggesting a distorted version of the American flag.
That broken image suits the play. America can be seen inside it, but there’s something bigger, too, suggesting that even the most familiar pieces of this country’s story can inspire fresh points of view.