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You Know Me, I'm Jack Ruby!
Published on Thursday, 16 May 2013

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4 stars

The Dukebox Theatre (venue website)
7, 9 May, 6:45pm-7:45pm; 8, 23-24 May, 8:00pm-9:00pm; 31 May, 1 Jun, 9:15pm-10:15pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Warning: Contains strong language.
 World Premiere.
 Suitable for age 16+ only.

Just in case you don’t know Jack Ruby, here’s a quick bluffer’s guide: he’s the small-time Dallas night-club owner who shot Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV, thereby earning instant notoriety and a perpetual place in the JFK conspiracy canon. Actor-playwright Clifford Barry has his own theories on the matter – entirely sensible and grounded ones – and in this quietly powerful monologue, he shares a sympathetic and nuanced view of Ruby. In his hands, the purported mafioso becomes as an almost tragic figure, a bystander caught up in someone else’s tale.

From the outset Barry paints a convincing picture of Ruby, a contradictory character who runs a shady burlesque club yet values “class” so highly he won’t allow swearing in front of female staff.  We meet him in prison, both before and after his trial, and witness his descent from bullish self-confidence to paranoia and ultimate despair.  Along the way, there’s a telling riposte to conspiracy theorists everywhere – “you put it in the paper, everyone believes it,” he says – and a very human insight into Ruby’s celebrated dalliance with the mob.  It’s just one point of view, of course, but it’s a thoroughly compelling one, linking that shocking moment in Dallas to his early life and the rampant abuse he suffered as an American Jew.

At first, Barry cuts a commanding presence on stage – capturing our attention with nothing more than an orange jump-suit, and a packing crate to sit on.  There was one moment, when he looked me in the eyes, that I felt a stab of genuine fear.  As the play went on, though, I began to crave a little variety, and wondered whether more adventurous direction might further enhance the effect.  A scene which saw a broken Ruby keeling to pray was an example of what I was looking for; some more such variations in imagery and tone would have heightened the atmosphere for me.

If I’ve one significant criticism, though, it’s of the sound effects – which were used sparingly and, therefore, were uniformly intrusive whenever they appeared.  In a way though, that’s a compliment to Barry: I’d have believed him more if he’d just told me someone was screaming, without the need to hear it played out on the backing track.  As proof of Barry’s skill, by the end of his monologue, I felt I’d met and knew prison guard Mr Stevenson – despite the fact that he never spoke, never appeared, and might even only have existed in Ruby’s deteriorating mind.

At the end, though, the success of this play is measured by how well it sold its theory: a particular view of Jack Ruby’s psychology, which made the inexplicable re-order itself into some kind of sense.  As the JFK rumour mill whirls on and on, Ruby’s been celebrated, pilloried, venerated, and defamed, so it’s high time we heard some words of his own.  This play’s final words are Jack Ruby’s: the thing he always said, the simple explanation he so consistently gave.  And you know what?  For the first time in my life, I listened to those words… and I actually believed them.

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