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A CurtainUp Review
By Deborah Blumenthal
The play is a riff on the work of French philosopher and writer Albert Camus. Camus' novel, The Stranger —- an absurdist novel about murder— was one of several titles on President Bush's 2006 summer reading list. Playwright Mickle Maher (who stars as John Kerry) brings Camus' ideas together with the issues of the first 2004 presidential debate to frame ideas about the current state of political affairs.
President Bush likely publicized his delving into the novel while on vacation at his Texas ranch in order to tout the ambitiousness of his effort, but it's fairly easy to find humor in almost anything related to Bush's persona. In the play, the President's secret love of theater is stimulated by a performance of Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf at a Coral Gables, Florida theater. The performance, he explains, taught him that the occurrence of great moment on stage was in fact a possibility, and he was inspired to create one himself.
Presidential debates, of course, take place on stages. The Strangerer is not only an absurdist look at politics. It is also an examination of the theater, particularly politics as a theatrical enterprise, and of politicians as directors, whose job it is to cause a particular reaction by a presentation of a certain event.
The play takes jabs at both Kerry and Bush, though it's obviously more offensive to Bush, arguably because Bush is easier to make fun of. In fact, Bush in the play is keenly aware of this. He admits to knowing that half the people watching the debate are only paying attention to what he says in order to poke fun at it later. The Bush jokes are overdone and old hat, but they are funny despite their age. Consequently, the most consistently humorous moments come from the often inserted mockery of Bush's notorious speech foibles. One of the script's strengths (depending on your leaning, of course, though it — probably accurately— assumes an anti-Bush audience) is its use of cleverly slipped in could-be "Bushisms." Thus performances, can have "dramatical" stages, and Kerry "came to the same concussion" as did Bush about Virginia Woolf. The writing for both candidates exhibits strong, and often hilarious caricature.
The President opts to tell the story about his moment of theatrical revelation rather than answer the questions posed by moderator (or "modulator," as Bush calls him) Jim Lehrer (Colm O'Reilly). He tells the story in chapters, picking up where he left off during the previous allotted answer time. He responds to questions about the war in Iraq and homeland security with irrelevant, only vaguely coherent rants, as he works out and reasons his way through his ideas aloud. Kerry responds as if all this is completely normal — as though Bush has provided answers that had everything to do with the questions asked, as one might assume a U.S. President would be capable of doing. The Senator, in typical well-trained politician form, refutes minute specifics, turning points ever-so-slightly on tiny technicalities.
The performances greatly enhance the written comedy. All three actors bear good-enough (if slightly goofy) physical resemblances to their real-life counterparts, but it's the mannerisms that make the portrayals, and the humor. Maher adopts Kerry's staunch poise and rigid stance and seasoned political tone. O'Reilly's dry, calculated performance as Lehrer initially draws the audience into an environment where formality is to be tossed away and the absurdity of it all exposed, beginning with the exaggerated, highly methodical blowing of his nose. But it is Guy Massey, as President Bush, who not surprisingly steals the show. He has the best material, but he also has Bush's dumbfounded squint and trademark "What just happened?" look of confusion down to a science, sporting a spot-on accent to go with it.
While enjoyment of the play isn't contingent upon knowing the source material beforehand, it can only help viewers to appreciate the humor. Mocking Bush has lately been overshadowed by the beginning stages of the upcoming 2008 presidential election but The Strangerer reminds us of issues that have been put on the backburner. Although it doesn't click until the last five minutes or so of the play, draws rgua into relevance, rather than just creating yet another political satire. Bush tells Lehrer and Kerry that he was inspired to create his own theatrical moment, and decided that it would be a death; it is a difficult thing, he explains, to get people to applaud the death of an innocent person. But does he want his audience to applaud the death —- the gallant, courageous giving of one's life in an act of nobility? Or does he want them to applaud the killing — and thus the killer, or cause of the death. Is he suggesting heroism, or asking to be acquitted for the consequences of his actions? It is a classic theatrical tactic to use the past as means to comment aptly on the present.
Though it would be better to have them come a little earlier, the play's final moments are a commentary that makes a four-year-old debate which you might think commentary has outworn its welcome timely after all.
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