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There's Something About Jodie

Of all the people you might encounter in a solo drama, John Hinckley is not likely to be anyone's first choice. Chances are the would-be Reagan assassin won't be serving tea in the cozy manner of Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst, or experiencing high-volume sexual liberation along the lines of the title character in Shirley Valentine. Not a born storyteller, he can't possibly be as entertaining as Hal Holbrook's Mark Twain, can he? Maybe the best you could hope for would be Hinckley pulling out a gun and shooting someone.

Guns do indeed figure heavily in I Love You Forever, Stuart Meltzer's intriguing one-man show now playing courtesy of Trap Door Theatre at Tobacco Road. Here actor Erik Fabregat holds forth for an hour, navigating his way through the psyche of the man who, in 1981, in an attempt to win the love of actress Jodie Foster, tried to end the life of Ronald Reagan. "If someone has to die so another man's love can live, so be it," says the young man who sits before us. "It happens all the time."

This fictionalized John Hinckley imagines himself forever linked in history to another notorious assassin: "From this moment on, my name will be spoken in the same sentence as Lee Harvey Oswald." Whether or not the real-life Hinckley thought this way is immaterial. Playwright Meltzer knows that the gunman has entered into our collective memory, if not as an entire chapter along the lines of Oswald, then at the very least as a footnote. An emblem of a peculiarly American sort of obsession (where else do criminals shoot people just to get on TV?), Hinckley is a subject ripe for exploration.

His tale of pathological fixation is one we continue to find morbidly fascinating. Nabokov's Lolita, Fowles' The Collector, and Hollywood's recent There's Something About Mary are just a few of the many stories about obsession. John Hinckley may have sent Foster dozens of letters and poems and pestered her with phone calls, but he's hardly alone in his compulsion. David Letterman has his own stalker, as does Madonna. Just two weeks ago, the New York Times ran a story about the psychology of stalking, the appearance of which proves that the behavior is a part of modern life. But even the Times can't entirely demystify obsession, and so we must rely on artists to explain it.

In Meltzer's play, set in the hours after Hinckley has been taken into custody, the gunman's most fascinating attribute is his ability to recall unsettling visual images of his experience. Here is his memory of the moments just after the shooting, in which he describes the feel of his skin: "Flesh peeled back like green cucumber skins, you know, the green peels you find in the garbage can at your grandmother's." His experience of being subdued by the Secret Service is also visual: "All I see are these shoes, these black pairs of shoes.... People are running away in black shoes, people are running towards me with black shoes." Eerie stuff. But the power of those lines is something neither the author of I Love You Forever nor its star can sustain.

In the performance space upstairs at Tobacco Road, Fabregat's performance, softly punctuated by chatter from diners below, takes place on the tiny stage decorated with only a few props -- a chair, an upended crate that serves as a table, and a glass of water. The character spends most of his time sitting in his chair, waiting, he explains, for Jodie Foster to arrive, which she is sure to do just as soon as she hears news of the shooting. The starkness of the set and the limited movement of the actor foretell the somber tone of the play as well as its dramatic shortcomings.

Meltzer, a cofounder of Trap Door Theatre, developed I Love You Forever as his New World School of the Arts senior project, but despite its having evolved over the four years he spent in the school's college program, the final form seems haphazard. There's no sense of the story having been shaped for a particular effect. In his director's notes, Meltzer says he was captivated by obsession and fascinated by Hinckley. I suspect the writing of this piece started with the poetry -- the black shoes and so on -- but that when Meltzer tried to expand his ideas into a full-length play, he didn't really have much idea where to take it. One result is that the Hinckley we meet at the beginning of the piece is no different from the Hinckley we know by the end.

The challenge of building a show around a historical figure like Hinckley is that we're already aware of the salient details. We know he's obsessed with Jodie. We know Reagan will be hit with a bullet. We even know smaller bits of the drama, such as the detail that Reagan was joking about the ordeal to wife Nancy while still on the gurney at the hospital. But we don't know the events in Hinckley's life that led him that spring day in 1981 to be standing "in the cold wet morning holding a .22." Unfortunately, after sitting through I Love You Forever, we still don't have even an imagined explanation.

We never learn, for instance, why Hinckley latched on to Jodie Foster and not Justine Bateman or Kristy McNichol. Or why, as he alludes, he hates his father and seems to have no friends. "I understand Taxi Driver and it understands me," Hinckley says by way of explaining his obsession with the actress. "It mirrored the way I was feeling and it was sexy and it understood the way I am." That's compelling writing, but it doesn't really define or even elucidate Hinckley's passion. Furthermore, for a play about a man obsessed with a woman, I Love You Forever contains long stretches in which the idea of Foster dissipates.

Also absent is any notion that Meltzer, who also directs, made the right decisions about using his actor, given the limitations of the Tobacco Road space. Financial considerations aside the only justification for staging a play on an empty set is if you have an actor strong enough to take the audience to places in their own imaginations where props aren't necessary. Here, however, the bare-stage approach leaves Meltzer's script and Fabregat to fend for themselves, and in this case neither is up to the task.

Giving Hinckley something to do that would reveal how his obsession manifests itself might be a way to engage us more effectively. Fabregat is an appealing guy, but he doesn't bring much to the portrait of Hinckley. For example, there's no difference between the way he talks about seeing Taxi Driver and the way he describes the ride, under guard, from the scene of the shooting. It's not clear whether we're supposed to feel sympathy for him or to regard him with horror -- or some combination of both -- which is partially the playwright's fault. But when Fabregat stumbled over words, I couldn't tell whether he was doing it to convey the character's unease or because he'd simply flubbed a line.

In real life Hinckley was acquitted on grounds of insanity. On stage at Tobacco Road, he's not entirely competent either. Like the real Hinckley, I Love You Forever misses its mark.

I Love You Forever.
Written and directed by Stuart Meltzer. Starring Erik Fabregat. Through September 30. Trap Door Theatre at Tobacco Road, 626 S. Miami Ave., Miami, 305-512-5051.

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Robin Dougherty

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