Volume 75, Number 26 | November 16 -22, 2005

Theater

RFK
Written & performed by Jack Holmes
Directed by Larry Moss
The Culture Project
45 Bleecker St. at Lafayette
Tues.-Sat. at 8pm; Wed., Sat., Sun at 3pm, through Nov. 30
Tickets $30-$55
(212.307.4100; rfktheplay.com)

Richard Termine

Jack Holmes channels the spirit and soul of the late Bobby Kennedy in his one-man show, “RFK.”

The last good man standing

By Scott Harrah

The tragic, untimely end to any prominent public figure’s life always leads to speculation about the possibilities of what might have been, and writer/actor Jack Holmes eloquently explores the myth and mysteries behind one such life in his brilliant play about Robert F. Kennedy, titled simply “RFK.” The former senator and presidential candidate was not just any public figure, however—he was a Kennedy, part of an aristocratic family that was equivalent to American royalty. After his assassination on June 5, 1968, less than five years after the killing of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, and just two months after the murder of the civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr., the chance of ever restoring the glamour and mystique of “Camelot” to the White House and American politics was gone forever.

Many baby boomers identifiy with RFK because he shared their common goals for ending the Vietnam War, advocating civil rights, battling poverty and fighting the establishment. In this riveting, emotionally charged two-hour show, Holmes recreates the forward-thinking man with remarkable accuracy. Everything about RFK, from his thick Boston accent to his nervous, self-conscious demeanor, is depicted with passion, honesty, and excoriating truth. Holmes does more than just impersonate the man. In each of the poignant monologues Holmes delivers, he seems to channel his spirit and soul.

In the summer of 1964, RFK, then the U.S. Attorney General, was still overcome with grief over the death of his brother. He found himself at a difficult crossroads in his life because the presidential election was approaching and President Lyndon Johnson summoned Kennedy to the White House to end speculation over whether he would be Johnson’s Vice Presidential running mate. That meeting and the direction of RFK’s life afterward form the focus of Holmes’ story. We see RFK go back and forth in time as he goes from living in the shadow of his more famous brother, managing his Senate campaign in Massachusetts, to becoming a senator himself. A vociferous critic of the Vietnam War and a strong defender of civil rights, RFK makes many enemies as a young senator in Washington, and becomes quite unpopular in the south. He ultimately breaks his ties publicly with President Johnson over the Vietnam War, and in 1968 he announces his candidacy for president.

Anyone familiar with American politics knows about the many struggles RFK faced, but few know what he was like as a person. Jack Holmes delves deeply into RFK’s past and tells many anecdotes about the man’s personal and family life. For instance, he was the only member of the Kennedy clan (other than JFK) who truly got along with Jackie, and he recalls playing football with her at the Kennedy compound one summer when she was still engaged to his brother. While the Kennedy clan jokingly referred to the demure and elegant Jackie Bouvier as “the debutante,” RFK was inspired by her desire to play the game even though she wasn’t athletic. RFK himself was never much of an athlete, but he managed to letter in football while attending Harvard. When JFK was murdered, RFK recalls going to Air Force One to comfort Jackie in her bloodstained Chanel suit, and they grew even closer in the dark days after the president’s death. When Jackie was forced to leave the White House and live temporarily at her Georgetown residence with JFK, Jr. and Caroline Kennedy, RFK recalls spending many evenings sitting with his grieving sister-in-law. He tells how he was never a great student or much of a reader, but Jackie began lending him books, and he developed a love for the classics and the great poets. He would later quote Tennyson and Shaw and ancient Greek philosophers in his many political speeches.

The play climaxes in 1968, as RFK campaigns across the country. He starts winning several states in the Democratic primaries, and travels through California on a whistle stop tour. On June 5, 1968, RFK had just given his victory speech in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel and was walking through the kitchen to shake the hand of a busboy when shots were fired and America’s dream of putting another Kennedy in the White House was shattered forever.

“RFK” uses a sparse set of a desk and a few chairs, and snippets of old Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin songs as sound effects, to illustrate the tone of America in the 1960s. It’s Jack Holmes, however, who truly brings RFK to life in what is most certainly one of the best Off-Broadway performances of the year. The issues at the center of RFK’s campaign—from peace and justice to equality—have just as much relevance in 2005 as they did more than three decades ago. Even audience members too young to remember RFK’s assassination will find this show thoroughly engrossing.

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