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Words cut like a knife in Mary-Arrchie’s ‘Uncle Bob’

Richard Cotovsky (left) Rudy Galvan “Uncle Bob” Mary-Arrchie Theatre Angel Island. | PHOTO BY LEV KALMENS

Richard Cotovsky (left) and Rudy Galvan in “Uncle Bob” at Mary-Arrchie Theatre at Angel Island. | PHOTO BY LEV KALMENS

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When: Through July 21

Where: Mary-Arrchie Theatre at Angel Island, 735 W. Sheridan

Tickets: $25

Info: (773) 871-0442;

Run time: 100 minutes, no intermission

Updated: July 19, 2013 6:05AM

When the lights go up on “Uncle Bob,” Austin Pendleton’s treatise on loneliness, failure and tenuous redemption, the audience is introduced to the title character with a subtle nod to Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape.” Only instead of listening to a taped recording of the details of his life, Bob talks and talks and talks trying to make sense of a life lived unfulfilled.

A failed writer and actor, Bob (Richard Cotovsky) sits hunched over his tiny desk taking notes and fiddling with a tape recorder. As the scene unfolds, he’s mutters and paces and carries on an eloquent one-way conversation with his estranged and absent wife Sally who has moved out of their Greenwich Village apartment.

Bob is dying of AIDS after having unprotected sex with men. He is filled with self-hatred and has purposely sought self-destruction. Because of his deteriorating health, he wonders if his “mind is disintegrating or just becoming uncluttered.” Sally, who works with the homeless, occasionally checks on him as she would her clients. But mostly he is holed up in his dingy apartment with his memories, his failures and the encroaching aura of the finality of death.

Suddenly, Bob’s monologue (one of Cotovsky’s best moments) is interrupted when his troubled nephew Josh bursts into the room. A dialogue of challenges, insults and put-downs begins and continues for the remainder of this often-startling 100-minute play under the direction of Cody Estle.

Josh totaled his Porsche, fled his parents’ home and hitchhiked across the country to take care of his dying uncle. Or so he says. You’re never quite sure where this messed up kid is heading as he boomerangs from one emotion to the next.

The witty, raw dialogue is dangerous, unsettling and often very funny. After one of Josh’s vitriolic outbursts, Bob says, “So this is a visit of compassion?” He resists any attempt to give meaning to his life.

Andrew Hildner’s set, a drab apartment lined with shelves filled with books their spines turned to the wall, gives off a beige, melancholy ambience that from the first scene sets the mood for this dissection of an unfulfilled life.

Cotovsky has portrayed many edgy, manic characters over the years and Bob could have easily joined this roster. But instead, his Bob is a thinking man’s failure who uses the only weapon he knows — words. Yet there is craziness buried here but it’s kept in check. Just watch Cotovsky’s face as it registers and restrains emotional explosions that might have rumbled up.

As the self-destructive Josh, Galvan has some nicely unhinged moments. But the required hot-headed danger of a young man spiraling toward a dead-end doesn’t quite gel. This Josh is caught somewhere in the middle of verbal battles that often don’t quite hit their mark.

“Uncle Bob” is a play about failed lives — one just about over, the other with the possibility of redemption. There are a few moments of physical violence but the majority of this is provided by Pendleton’s words which sting and cut with the efficiency of the sharpest knife. The drama is capped with a melodramatic and hard to buy ending that has Bob commenting, “I don’t believe this.” Exactly.

Mary Houlihan is a local free-lance writer.

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