The summer of 1983 was a formative time for the young Woody Harrelson. Yes, that Woody Harrelson: Before he was a TV and movie star, it seems, he worked a construction job in Houston, where he made a lifelong friend named Frankie Hyman.
What else happened that summer, and why it mattered, are not things you will learn from the play they’ve written about it, Bullet for Adolf, a shrieking, tone-deaf comedy directed by Harrelson and now playing at New World Stages. The piece follows a group of guys as they mix cement and chase tail one sweaty Texas summer. Two of these dudes—Zach (Brandon Coffey) and Frankie (Tyler Jacob Rollinson)—are probably alter-egos for the playwrights. The boys’ Teutonic boss, Jurgen (Nick Wyman), has murky ties to the Nazi era, as well as a daughter (Shannon Garland) who becomes the simpering object of various male affections. There’s a plot (sort of): In Act I, a gun is stolen, and in Act II it goes off. Scene changes are punctuated by ’80s-appropriate TV clips: Reagan and Madonna, newscasts about the AIDS crisis and the invasion of Grenada.
All of this is just pretext, though, for an endless stream of jokes, each less entertaining than the one before. Objects of derision include Italians, the Holocaust, beer, African-Americans, white people, Baptists, women, Buddhists, lesbians, Los Angeles, slavery, and Judy Garland. We are privy to one-liners about pedophilia, necrophilia, and gang rape. The actors tumble and flail and paw each other; there is a scene where human placenta is consumed, and a dirty-underpants-sniffing sequence.
These things are all in bad taste, but more importantly, they aren’t funny. There’s something admirably ecumenical about Harrelson and Hyman’s determination to ridicule every kind of person, and for a moment, it even seemed like the play’s relentless immaturity, set against television footage of global strife, could be meant as satire—mocking the way people goof off in the face of worldwide trauma. But satire requires coherence, which Bullet for Adolf lacks. In fact, Harrelson and Hyman seem to have little ambition beyond dragging their audiences through every variety of humorless joke—and after two and a half hours of inanity, it seemed like the joke was on us.