boston.com Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe
STAGE REVIEW

A runaway train of empty thoughts

Steven Johnson plays a disturbed subway musician. Steven Johnson plays a disturbed subway musician. (ANIKA BACHHUBER PHOTO)

The lone character in "Bombs & Manifestos," BB, is a subway performer who doesn't do requests. Any listener foolish enough to ask is in for a string of angry imprecations. In fact, BB admits right off the bat, in what he announces is his final performance, that he doesn't even know how to play the guitar he's forever tuning. It's just a front for his psycho-political ravings, a good portion of which consist of appreciative exegeses on the writings of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski .

The mystery at the heart of this hourlong one-man soliloquy, presented by Alarm Clock Theatre Company at the Boston Center for the Arts, is just whom BB might be addressing. Anyone stuck in his company for more than a minute would surely scurry to the end of the platform or, if the way were barred, seriously consider a leap past the third rail -- anything to get away from this nattering narcissist, whom Steven Johnson plays from the get-go as a wild-eyed wacko. "Overacting" would be an understatement. Everything is emphasized, every halting pause laden with presumable import.

And yet -- perhaps it's meant to be in character -- you'd rarely see a performer seemingly so loath to connect with his audience. "Shifty-eyed" doesn't begin to describe Johnson. Mostly he resembles a crazed, cornered cow . Visually, there's nothing to latch onto in this production, even if you include the side panels displaying a map of the T and filmmaker Jeff Stern's digitally animated clips of anonymous riders. Ah, the cruel impersonality of modern life.

The editors of my high-school literary magazine had only one hard-and-fast rule, which seemed unnecessarily restrictive at the time: In short stories, no colorful encounters on public conveyances. I get it now. They were just trying to block a too-convenient conduit to easy pathos and cheap theatrics.

That's what we get here. BB's parents, a pair of academics, didn't get him; he mocks their emphasis on "attainable goals." The instrument he picked up as a child from departing students' trash became his only ally, though he merely pretended to master it ("My guitar instructor wants me to focus on my craft," he recalls snottily responding when pressured to play). A woodsy vacation with an uncle introduced his namesake weapon of choice (a BB gun); an encounter with some digestively "disrepectful" birds, his first excuse for cold-blooded killing.

You'd think all this was leading somewhere; you listen for cues, such as "My shtick is about to hit the fan" (rictus grin) and "I've never blown up anything before." If there's any explosive action, though, it certainly doesn't take place onstage.

Yes, as BB points out, the Unabomber may have had some good points. Never mind the tastelessness of bothering to make such a case; that's still not enough of a rationale for this agonizingly extended excursion to nowhere.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES