Plenty of stars have gotten in trouble for masturbating in theaters. Woody Harrelson isn’t the first, or even the funniest. That said, Bullet for Adolf, his demented, ecstatically incompetent Texas picaresque — a shambolic pseudo-satire fueled by eighties hits, sitcom one-liner one-upmanship, a YouTube binge of Reagan-era TV clips, and freewheeling bad taste — is strangely transfixing. Written with Frankie Hyman and directed slaphappily by Harrelson himself, Adolf aspires sometimes to bebop absurdism, sometimes to Hiassen-esque archness, but always, always settles for simple, leering puerility. It’s a long, wet, occasionally musical fart unsphinctered in a crowded theater — a form of celebrity speech that will always be protected in this country. (Though one hopes that will be challenged, if only so we can watch Harrelson defend it in court.)
The story, such as it is: It’s summer 1983, and Zach (Brandon Coffey, voice curled in a Harrelson-esque drawl), an aspiring actor without much in the way of aspiration, lives and lies-about in Houston with his shrill, fey roommate Clint (David Coomber). He befriends Frankie (Tyler Jacob Rollinson) at the construction site where they both work — an operation owned by Jurgen (Nick Wyman), a not-so-crypto Nazi with a libertarian streak. Zach’s making a play for Jurgen’s daffy, virginal granola daughter Batina (Shannon Garland). Frankie’s trying to shuck his working-man’s exterior to woo the independent buppie-queen Jackie (Shamika Cotton); her gal pal Shareeta (Marsha Stephanie Blake) is talk-to-the-hand skeptical of Frankie, of Zach, and just about everything else going on in the play. Meanwhile, a wily, street-speaking, ethnically fluid spoiler named Dago-Czech (Lee Osorio) skulks around the edges, threatening vengeance on Zach for taking his job and on Jurgen for giving it to him. Somewhere in this morass, Jurgen loses a treasured keepsake: the Luger that very nearly killed Hitler, the jammed bullet still stuck in the chamber. For Jurgen this represents — well, I’ll let him explain: “Revolution. Change. Hitler was the wrong man. Reagan is the wrong man. One man’s will should never be inflicted on the millions. But the will of those millions should be felt by that man. The gun is symbolic, but symbols keep the dream alive.” Who stole the gun? And does it matter?
Allow me to destroy the suspense: It does not. Everything that happens in Bullet for Adolf exists only to set up the very next line; no further thought has been lavished on story or theme, form or content. Despite some bottle rockets about race and religion and Reagan and sexuality and generalized American madness popped off in all directions, the stakes here remain fixed at Nil. Jurgen’s gun speech is about as serious as Adolf gets, and that’s a good thing, because this is not a serious play. It is play, sans definite article. Characters wallop each other one minute, stick tongues down each other’s throats the next, and seem to forget nearly everything about their relative emotional states from moment to moment. Jurgen’s house, for instance, is a dead ringer for the dining room at Wolf’s Lair, complete with candelabra, blood-red wallpaper, and shrine to an officer in Reich mufti. Yet, when the gang converges on this charming bunker for a highly improbable dinner engagement, nobody recoils or even reacts much: just another Houston Quasi-Nazi! This pants-fall-down faux-postmodernism jostles against massive irony-laced verbiage that feels more influenced by the knockaround indie films of the nineties than aggravated, cokey-dokey cheese-pop of the eighties. (Aside from the carbon-dated movie posters on the walls — the all-purpose college director’s answer to When and Where — there’s little to tie us, dramaturgically or emotionally, to the eighties, other than a vague cultural squalidness.)
Adolf is watchable the way a demolition is watchable, perhaps even more so because this demolition is so uncontrolled, so unaccomplished. The stories don’t accordion in on each other the way they’re supposed to but spill out madly in all directions, taking down whole city blocks on all sides. Perhaps the authors, deep in the primordial bong-haze of creation, fell asleep reading Sam Shepard and woke up watching ALF, tried to split the difference, and then wisely gave up and wrote Bullet for Adolf. That’s as good an explanation as any, right? Anyway, it’s what popped into my head just now and so — in the spirit of the show — I’m gonna write it down.
Bullet for Adolf is at New World Stages through September 9.