Every American demographic eventually faces that disheartening moment, that wake-up call when its affiliates look around at their contemporaries and realize, much to their dismay, that their generation has already peaked. For the baby boomers, if we are to believe the testimony of playwright Dan Klores, that moment came sometime around 1975, the year in which his wavering new drama, Little Doc, takes place. The play centers on a group of longtime friends who are approaching 30, which is to say they are coming down from the high that accompanies being young and having the world as their oyster. The days of political activism and Vietnam War protests have given way to extended hang-out sessions at the Brooklyn apartment of Ric, played by Adam Driver, a hard-headed burnout who spends much of the play complaining about, or arguing with, his equally hard-headed father, played by Steven Marcus. Ric announces early on that he and his girlfriend, Peggy (Joanne Tucker), are going on a road trip, but when it is revealed that he has not yet paid back a sizable debt to his father’s friend Manny (Dave Tawil), suspicion begins to mount that Ric is looking to skip town for good.
Little Doc, while not quite a talking-heads piece, contains a fair amount of talking, but this is really its most enjoyable attribute. As the young friends banter, their conversations shift quickly from playful ruminations about the good old days to mean-spirited bickering over old grievances. Because they know each other so well, they are experts at pushing each other’s buttons, and their precarious exchanges will ring true for anyone who has ever been part of an overextended social clique.
Klores, whose roots are in documentary filmmaking, is adept at spitting out taut dialogue and creating genuine moments of dramatic intensity, but he hasn’t quite mastered the more basic craft of storytelling. His plot veers into several different directions involving Ric’s relationship with his father and his debt to Manny — an aging mobster who treats Ric like his own son. Through it all, however, we mostly find ourselves wanting to see more of the central clique. The young friends’ nihilistic jousting shows a rarely seen side of the baby boom generation, whose cohorts are known less for their cynicism and more for patting themselves on the back and bragging about how cool Woodstock was. Little Doc proves that the boomers, for all their idealism and ambition to change the world, also had their fair share of disillusionment. Like the Gen-X slackers who came a few years later and the recession-weary Millennials of today, Klores’s boomers face the end of their youth with clenched teeth, angry that no one had warned them of their limitations. As this was the first American generation to grow up with the opportunities provided by postwar economic prosperity, it was also the first to squander those opportunities. And while Klores poignantly reminds us of this, he then goes on to squander opportunities of his own. The more compelling aspects of Little Doc are treated as a subplot, while the playwright pours an unnecessary amount of energy into Ric’s possible betrayal of Manny. As the wounded father figure confronts the fallen hero, we realize we’ve seen this type of climax many times before, and Klores brings nothing new to the device.
Still, this pitfall doesn’t stand in the way of Little Doc’s first-rate cast, whose combined graces make the play well worth its 90-minute running time. While the central character of Ric is self-serving and, at times, downright underhanded, Driver keeps him likeable in a spacey, Zach Braff kind of way, and by his final monologue, we can’t help but root for Ric’s redemption. Tobias Segal, who plays the group’s requisite spaz, Billy, isn’t given much to do outside of a few comic non sequiturs, but he readily handles the role’s one-note humor. Early in the play, we catch a small glimpse of Segal’s true dramatic range when Billy nods off, chillingly, into a womblike stupor, a fresh syringe full of junk coursing through his veins. Bill Tangradi as Lenny, the quixotic hippie whose grand plans for free love haven’t quite panned out, is the standout of the cast. While Lenny’s preset smugness makes him sharply critical of his friends’ sedentary lifestyle, it’s hard not to notice that he isn’t doing much with his own life aside from popping Quaaludes and dealing coke. And yet Tangradi’s keen awareness of these contradictory traits fleshes Lenny out in a way that makes us wish the character had a larger role in the story.
Somewhere between the Summer of Love and the inauguration of Bill Clinton — the first president born after World War II — the baby boomers learned to look back on their youth with an inflated sense of accomplishment. Little Doc, if nothing else, adds balance to the conversation. It assures us that every generation has its underachievers.
Little Doc; Written by Dan Klores; Directed by John Gould Rubin; Rattlestick Playwrights Theater; 224 Waverly Place; www.rattlestick.org