'Borneo Bob' Asks the Question: What's Eating Walter?

What’s Eating Walter?
The amusing Borneo Bob showcases a hilarious character with a voracious appetite for human life—and another who’s a cannibal

In David Macaray’s frequently funny (if rough around the edges) Borneo Bob, receiving its world premiere at STAGEStheatre, the most comically inventive character can best be described as Cruella De Vil meets Ayn Rand.

She’s Cousin Edie, the hard-as-nails, vulgarity-spewing millionaire who succinctly articulates some of the basic tenets of Rand, one of laissez-faire capitalism’s most starry-eyed apologists who still commands Messiah-like rapture among a particularly shrill component of the body politic. (You don’t have to look far for such folks: The Ayn Rand Institute, an objectivist think tank, is based in Irvine.)

Borneo Bob isn’t about Rand per se, and Cousin Edie is a minor, if important, character. The play’s protagonist is Walter, a former tree surgeon who, two years before the start of the play, suffered a nervous breakdown. But Edie’s lacerations of Walter raise Borneo Bob above its simplistic comic premise.

Countering these rants from Edie (played in perfect pitch by Rose London) is Borneo Bob (an effective Mark Rosier), an immigrant from—surprise—Borneo who is pursuing a doctorate in cultural anthropology. Where Edie sees Walter (a sympathetically confused Joe Parrish) as a weak-willed coward broken by his inability to benefit from the purest economic system ever created, Bob sees his struggle in terms of existential angst and takes a Joseph Campbell-like approach: Walter is actually a pilgrim, someone who has dared to peek behind the wizard’s curtain. But in the process of deconstructing himself, Bob posits, he’s peeled away too many layers, leaving himself defenseless.

Bob is the play’s most sensitive, compassionate and generous character. He also happens to be a cannibal, something that supplies plenty of comic, uh, fodder.

The script could use some trimming, and the supporting characters—Walter’s sweet-natured wife, his recovering-coke-addict son and French-spewing daughter—need fleshing out, but Macaray strikes a good balance between lowbrow humor and armchair philosophizing. It ain’t exactly Marx’s Theses On Feuerbach, but in pitting Edie, a ferocious defender of rationality and reason, against the mythically infused Bob, a decent clash of ideals (or lack thereof) ensues.

In the middle is Walter, who hasn’t left the house in two years, survives off dry sugar-saturated cereal and, when not ironing one of his 200 ties, spends most of his time in a plywood sarcophagus that he calls his isolation booth.

When Walter learns that his 26-year-old son has been spending a great deal of time with a new neighbor, he shows signs of parental concern. When his son tells him that their neighbor is two years removed from Borneo and a practicing cannibal, Walter gets really concerned.

Walter agrees to invite Bob over for coffee the next night; unfortunately after the invitation is tendered, Walter’s cousin Edie, the president of a toy-manufacturing company, calls to say she’s in town for a day and wants to pop in for a visit.

Suddenly, Walter, who seems confused but content to drift through the shards of his life, has to deal not only with a strange neighbor who eats human flesh, but also his ultra-controlling cousin, whose very name strikes dread in his family’s heart.

Los Angeles-based playwright Macaray’s main gig is writing about modern labor-related issues (he’s all over the Internet, and a collection of his essays is available on Amazon.com). He obviously has a sharp mind and a social conscience, and there are signs of both in Borneo Bob.But it seems like a test-run for something bigger, rather than a complete play in and of itself.

Not that Bob doesn’t work as it is; while it’s amusing, the laughs come cheaply and usually center on one family member goofing on someone else. That makes the first half of the play, dominated by Walter’s family dynamic, feel rushed and undercooked next to the battle between Edie and Bob for Walter’s spirit.

Contributing to the uneven tone are some glaring directorial flaws that, though easily remedied, are nevertheless irritating. It’s simple stuff, like actors continually crossing and uncrossing their arms and displaying acute “happy feet”—that theatrical syndrome of actors seeming to be incapable of standing still. Both defuse the power of an actor’s most powerful instrument, the body. And someone, anyone, please tell the cast to lift up their chins occasionally. In a theater like STAGES, which basically is stadium seating with the seats looking down onto the stage, actors have to make a conscious decision to raise their chins; otherwise, all we can see is the top of their skulls.

Those bugaboos aside, kudos to STAGES for mounting a brand-new play by a somewhat-local playwright during the month of December. Interestingly, while there’s nothing overtly Christmasy about Borneo Bob, its calling-out of the dubious virtue of the profit motive seems to make perfect, ironic sense during this frenzied time of year.

Borneo Bob at STAGEStheatre, 400 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 525-4484; www.stagesoc.org. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m. Through Dec. 20. $15-$18.

 
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