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Of all the people you might encounter in a solo drama, John Hinckley is not likely to be anyone's first choice. Chances are the would-be Reagan assassin won't be serving tea in the cozy manner of Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst or experiencing high-volume sexual liberation along the lines of the title character in Shirley Valentine. Not a born storyteller, he can't possibly be as entertaining as Hal Holbrook's Mark Twain, can he? Maybe the best you could hope for would be Hinckley pulling out a gun and shooting someone.
Indeed guns do figure heavily in I Love You Forever, Stuart Meltzer's intriguing one-man show now playing courtesy of Trap Door Theatre at Tobacco Road on Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday nights. Here actor Erik Fabregat holds forth for an hour, navigating his way through the psyche of the man who, in 1981, tried to win the love of actress Jodie Foster by ending the life of Ronald Reagan. "If someone has to die so another man's love can live, so be it," says the young man who sits before us. "It happens all the time."
This fictional John Hinckley imagines himself forever linked in history to another notorious assassin: "From this moment on, my name will be spoken in the same sentence as Lee Harvey Oswald's." Whether the real-life Hinckley thought that is immaterial. Playwright Meltzer knows that the gunman has entered into our collective memory, if not as an entire chapter along the lines of Oswald, then at the very least as a footnote. An emblem of a peculiarly American sort of pathology (where else do criminals shoot people to get on television?), Hinckley is a subject ripe for exploration.
His tale of monomania is one we continue to find morbidly fascinating. Nabokov's Lolita, Fowles's The Collector, and Hollywood's recent There's Something About Mary are just a few of the many stories about obsession. John Hinckley may have sent Foster dozens of letters and poems and pestered her with phone calls, but he's hardly alone in his compulsion. David Letterman has his own stalker, as does Madonna. Just two weeks ago the New York Times ran a story about the psychology of stalking, the appearance of which proves that the behavior is a part of modern life. But even the Times can't entirely demystify obsession, so we must rely on artists to help explain it.
In Meltzer's play, set in the hours after Hinckley has been taken into custody, the gunman's most fascinating attribute is his ability to recall unsettling sensory images of his experience. Here is his memory of the moments just after the shooting, in which he describes the feel of his skin: "Flesh peeled back like green cucumber skins, you know, the green peels you find in the garbage can at your grandmother's." His experience of being subdued by the Secret Service is also visual: "All I see are these shoes, these black pairs of shoes.... People are running away in black shoes, people are running toward me in black shoes." Eerie stuff. But the power of those lines is something neither the author of I Love You Forever nor its star can sustain.
In the space upstairs at Tobacco Road, Fabregat's performance, softly punctuated by chatter from diners below, unfolds on the tiny stage decorated with only a few props -- a chair, an upended crate that serves as a table, and a glass of water. The character spends most of his time sitting in his chair, waiting, he explains, for Jodie Foster to arrive, which she is sure to do just as soon as she hears news of the shooting. The starkness of the set and the limited movement of the actor signal both the somber tone of the play as well as its dramatic shortcomings.
Meltzer, a cofounder of Trap Door Theatre, developed I Love You Forever as his New World School of the Arts senior project. Despite its evolution over the four years Meltzer spent in the school's college program, its final form seems haphazard. There's no sense of the story having been shaped for a particular effect. In his director's notes, Meltzer says he was captivated by obsession and fascinated by Hinckley. I suspect the writing of this piece started with the poetry -- the black shoes and so on -- but that when Meltzer tried to expand his ideas into a full-length play, he didn't really have much idea where to take it. One result is that the Hinckley we meet at the beginning of the piece is no different from the Hinckley we know by the end.
The challenge of building a show around a historical figure like Hinckley is that we're already aware of the salient details. We know he's fixated on Jodie. We know Reagan will be hit with a bullet. We even know smaller bits of the drama, such as the detail that Reagan was joking about the ordeal to Nancy while still on the gurney at the hospital. But we don't know the events in Hinckley's life that led him one spring day in 1981 to be standing "in the cold wet morning holding a .22." Unfortunately, after sitting through I Love You Forever, we still don't have even an imagined explanation.
We never learn, for instance, why Hinckley latched on to Jodie Foster and not Justine Bateman or Kristy McNichol. Or why, as he alludes, he hates his father and seems to have no friends. "I understand Taxi Driver and it understands me," Hinckley says by way of explaining his mania about the actress. "It mirrored the way I was feeling and it was sexy and it understood the way I am." That's compelling writing, but it doesn't really define or even elucidate Hinckley's passion. Furthermore, for a play about a man obsessed with a woman, I Love You Forever contains long stretches in which the idea of Foster dissipates.
Absent too is any notion that Meltzer, who also directs, made the right decisions about using his actor, given the limitations of the Tobacco Road space. Financial considerations aside, the only justification for staging a play on an empty set is that you have an actor strong enough to take the audience to places in their own imagination where props aren't necessary. Here, however, the bare-stage approach leaves Meltzer's script and Fabregat to fend for themselves; in this case, neither is up to the task.
Giving Hinckley something to do that would reveal how his obsession is manifested might be a way to engage us more effectively. Fabregat is an appealing guy but he doesn't bring much to the portrait of Hinckley. For example, there's no difference between the way he talks about seeing Taxi Driver and the way he describes the ride, under guard, from the scene of the shooting. It's not clear whether we're supposed to feel sympathy or horror or some combination of both, which is partially the playwright's fault. But when Fabregat stumbled over words, I couldn't tell if he was doing it to convey the character's unease or if he'd simply flubbed a line.
In real life, Hinckley was acquitted on grounds of insanity. He's not entirely competent onstage at Tobacco Road either. Like the real Hinckley, I Love You Forever misses its mark.
I Love You Forever.
Written and directed by Stuart Meltzer; with Erik Fabregat. Through September 26. Trap Door Theatre at Tobacco Road, 626 S Miami Ave, 305-512-5051.