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A CurtainUp Review
My Buddy Bill
by David Avery
In his one-man play My Buddy Bill, Rick Cleveland tells a story that he purportedly heard from Bill Clinton himself. It basically goes like this (I'm paraphrasing Cleveland):
Bill and Hillary Clinton were on their way home from a fundraising event in Hillary's home town, when Bill decides he's hungry for a Snicker's bar. They stop at a gas station which happens to be owned by an ex-boyfriend of Hillary's. They say hello and talk with him briefly, and Hillary remembers old times with him. As they leave the gas station, Bill says to Hillary, "Just think, if you had married him instead of me, you'd be the wife of a gas station owner."
"No," she replies, "I'd be the wife of the President of the United States."
If that anecdote sounds suspiciously like a joke, you're right. The joke, that has been told since Bill Clinton took office in 1992, speaks to the public image of the Clintons' marriage, with Bill being managed by the ball-busting Hillary. So if it's a joke that's been told many times, one of three things is going on: 1) it really happened; 2) Bill Clinton liked the joke so much he told it to his friend Rick Cleveland as a real story; or 3) Rick Cleveland borrowed the joke and made the whole event up.
What you decide is the true statement is going to determine how you view My Buddy Bill. Either it's an incredible, comical, and fascinating tale of Rick Cleveland's brief friendship with one of the most famous and powerful men on the planet, or it's one big Bill Clinton joke. However you look at it, the play is very funny and entertaining, and deciding if it's true or not is half the fun.
Starting with a PR tour of the White House while working as a writer on "The West Wing," Cleveland documents a series of improbable Clinton outings that gradually become more and more outrageous. Initially, Clinton is impressed with Cleveland's ability to get his dog Buddy to stop urinating on the Oval Office carpet with a single stern "alpha-dogging." He writes a letter to Cleveland thanking him (which contains the sentence "Buddy hasn't peed on my rug one time since you rolled him over and yelled at him -- whatever you said or did to dissuade him, I thank you") and contacts Cleveland in LA for suggestions on where to take Buddy for a private, beach dog-walk when he is in Southern California.
Apparently enjoying Cleveland's company, Bill continues to invite him to various social functions such as a private dinner, a trip to Amsterdam and his Presidential Library opening in Arkansas. The occurrences at these meetings start out mundanely enough (Bill and Hillary have a spat at dinner), but gradually achieve a Herculean level of tall-tale telling (Bill, Billy-Bob Thornton, Roger Clinton, and Cleveland jam an impromptu version of Queen's "Under Pressure" in Thornton's barn studio, the terminus of which is Roger and Billy-Bob nearly coming to blows over a stolen melody).
In telling his story, Cleveland uses a simple desk, made up to look like an office desk. Titles are projected behind him to help separate the chapters of the story, and in a clever detail, a digital picture frame changes it's display for each section.
When the events described in the play are taken individually, they sound preposterous. But the soft-spoken, matter-of-fact way in which Cleveland relates the events sucks you in. He builds the story of his friendship with Clinton piece by piece, slowly upping the ante so that you don't question the details. His manner is one of incredulity, stopping our disbelief by embracing it himself. It helps that Cleveland is very good at telling stories, and has a sincerity that is hard to question his continued insistence that it is all true.
What also helps us buy Cleveland's allegations is the nature of Clinton's public persona. He is the only President that we could ever see actually becoming friends with a writer on The West Wing. He is perceived as a somewhat goofy and flawed individual. His second term impeachment made him a much more human person than probably any other president. So while the events themselves are somewhat far-fetched, there is nothing particularly far-fetched about Clinton's participating in them.
There are hints throughout the piece that it is nothing more than fiction. The joke mentioned above is one. Another comes when Cleveland recalls his first phone call from the President leaving him , thinking that it was a prank being played by one of his friends. This exact scenario happens to Annette Benning's character in the movie "American President," which was written by The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin.
True or not, it's a blast to be given an "inside" look at the private world of the ex-president. Even if we only believe it while Cleveland is telling it to us.
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