WATERTOWN -- In telling the story of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, ''Bill W. and Dr. Bob" avoids most of the pitfalls of biographical drama.
First, it feels like a real play, not a TV movie. As written by a local husband-and-wife team, Dr. Stephen Bergman (a.k.a. novelist Samuel Shem) and psychologist Janet Surrey, it has a flair for detail and character development. And as staged by director Rick Lombardo and set designer Anita Fuchs, it inhabits an imaginative and unique theatrical world of its own, another step forward for the New Repertory Theatre's use of its new Arsenal Center for the Arts space.
The set is framed by large slanting panels that look like window blinds; sometimes they segment the action, sometimes they open it up. Lombardo's staging creates a sense of real movement across the '20s and '30s. There's nothing the least bit static as the action shifts quickly from bars to apartments to hospitals, with excellent jazzy accompaniment from onstage pianist Todd C. Gordon.
For all the creativity in staging, though, dramatic license only goes so far when telling this story. A major problem flattens the second act: The characters of Bill Wilson and Bob Smith, at least as portrayed here, were more dramatic figures when they were drunk than sober.
This, of course, doesn't take away from their accomplishments. It just so happens that their best theatrical moments take place in the very nicely developed first act of ''Bill W. and Dr. Bob."
Bill W. is the mover and shaker of the two. He throws himself headlong into whatever he's doing, whether it's celebrating, despairing, getting sober, or sermonizing. The entire cast is quite strong, but Robert Krakovski shoulders the biggest load as the alpha dog of the characters.
Meanwhile Patrick Husted is equally adept at capturing the quieter sorrow and sweeter nature of Dr. Bob, whose drinking brings him out of himself but creates a monster in the process.
Rachel Harker and Kathleen Doyle fully inhabit their roles as the long-suffering wives, while Marc Carver and Deanna Dunmyer play a variety of parts with aplomb.
Both principal characters hit bottom in the first act. Krakovski gives you the sense that Bill is a time bomb waiting to go off. Will the business deal gone bad lead him back to the bar? Will the next drink be the fuse that ignites him?
He hooks up with Dr. Bob toward the end of the first act, and as they keep each other sober, they discover that talking to another alcoholic is far more effective than talking to a wife, clergyman, or doctor.
Could this be the key that unlocks the door for all alcoholics, along with a belief in some power outside oneself?
Yes it could, but the second-act search for the right formula is not dramatically interesting. The only sense of conflict is that Bill's evangelism threatens to ruin his marriage, but it's never very clear how it's salvaged. Dr. Bob and his wife grow so earnest that you're tempted to slip some gin into their tonic to bring some life back into their personalities.
And as the story forsakes drama for biography, the production grows tiresome. Carver runs out of ways to differentiate all the alcoholics he's playing. The set, centered on the Akron, Ohio, home of Dr. Bob, grows dull. Even the musical riffs from Gordon recede into the background in the second act.
By the end of ''Bill W. and Dr. Bob," it's apparent how important the two men were in shifting the diagnosis of alcoholism to a disease and establishing AA and its 12-step program to deal with it.
But good deeds and good drama aren't the same. Their second act was a success in reality. Bergman and Surrey need to find a way to make it a success onstage.
Ed Siegel can be reached at email@example.com.