John Clarence Stewart and Brendan Dooling share a scene in Must.
John Clarence Stewart and Brendan Dooling share a scene in Must.
Michael Kushner

They say your whole life flashes before your eyes when you're about to die. This popular trope, used for dramatic effect in just about every medium, is being employed in Must, a new play by Charles Cissel at the Theatre at St. Clement's. Cissel uses the concept of "life review" to explore how Manhattan-born Henry McCarty became the storied Wild West gunslinger we know today as Billy the Kid,. However, as hard as Cissel and director Gabriel Vega Weissman try, Must never provides any specific insights into the life of the person or the legend.

"How do I escape? Got to get rid of this life," an anguished Billy (Brendan Dooling) says shortly after the lights rise. To do so, he looks back on the important figures in his life: mother Catherine (Sally Ann Triplett), father Patrick (Mark Elliot Wilson), lover Luisa (Meredith Antoian), and Pat Garrett (John Clarence Stewart), the Sheriff who shot him. Over the course of an hour, these figures try to lead him to the death he so desires after years of torment.

The most notable aspect of Must is the fact that it's produced by Hollywood icon Bruce Willis, an old pal of playwright Cissel. Willis's financial contribution is clearly on display throughout the physical production as Must looks beautiful. The sleek set by Alexander Woodward evokes the mountains of New Mexico, which is further highlighted by stunning atmospheric lighting by Zach Blane. Brooke Cohen Brown's costumes are period-specific and handsome, if a little too clean given the situation at hand.

Brendan Dooling and John Clarence Stewart in Must at the Theater at St. Clement's.
Brendan Dooling and John Clarence Stewart in Must at the Theater at St. Clement's.
(© Michael Kushner)

What Must lacks is nuance in its writing and performances. Billy is portrayed as a glowering sad sack throughout, and Dooling is strangely milquetoast in a role that needs a more forceful actor to live up to this larger-than-life figure. Triplett, Wilson, and Antoian deliver one-note portrayals, though to be fair, they aren't given much to work with, as their characters are underdeveloped in the text itself.

Stewart makes the biggest impression as Garrett, and it's a real shame that this character doesn't appear more often. The show picks up steam significantly any time he's onstage. (That a black actor has been cast in the role of the sheriff who shot Billy is the most thought-provoking aspect of the piece, though that casting choice should have permeated the production in bigger ways.)

In a program note, director Weissman claims that we don't really know much about the life of Billy the Kid (a cursory Google search reveals otherwise). Cissel's play echoes that note, resulting in an under-researched evening of theater, with the dialogue, characters, and psychological underpinnings acting more as generalizations than specific and rich elements that add to the overall storytelling. The vagueness of Must is so glaring that despite sharing the names of historical figures like Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, it might as well not be about them at all, making this production far from a must-see.