nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 10, 2008
The Strangerer, a new play by Mickle Maher and Chicago's Theater Oobleck, takes place at the first 2004 Presidential Debate between George W. Bush and John Kerry (TV journalist Jim Lehrer was the moderator). The set, also designed by Maher, looks authentic as far as I can remember, and the opening, in which Colm O'Reilly as Lehrer sits virtually unmoving for 90 seconds while he waits for the signal to go live, and then introduces the candidates and the rules, feels verbatim like what went down almost four years ago. But then, while Kerry is making his opening remarks, we notice that Bush is sneaking out from behind his podium and that he's got a knife in his hand. Is he trying to stab Jim Lehrer?
For perhaps 10 or 15 minutes the show pushes ahead on the running gag of Bush trying different methods to assassinate the moderator. And then he turns existential (quite literally: most of his words come from various works by Albert Camus). The problem he is dealing with, he tells us, is not whether to kill Jim Lehrer, but how. For more than an hour, he struggles to explain his position and his dilemma while Lehrer doggedly sticks to his script and Kerry reveals himself to be a somewhat scary somnambulist.
If it sounds like a Saturday Night Live sketch allowed to go on for far too long—or perhaps, two different sketches stitched together—well, that's kind of what it felt like to me, as well. The twin premises of President Bush as would-be murderer and President Bush as troubled philosopher are funny, maybe. But even the people in the audience who seemed to be absolutely loving The Strangerer were never dissolved in laughter; the jokes pretty much disappear about a third of the way into the piece.
Which begs the question: if a political satire isn't funny, what, then, is it?
I sat through The Strangerer, attentive but almost always puzzled. Is Maher just trading in the same old George-W-Bush-is-dumb stereotypes? The program suggests this: the epigrams on the title page read as follows:
"We stared at each other without blinking, and everything came to a stop there between the sea, the sand, and the sun, and the double silence of the flute and the water. It was then that I realized you could either shoot or not shoot." - Albert Camus, The Stranger
"Uh..." - George W. Bush
Is the idea of killing Lehrer a symbol of the failed Iraq War? Is the whole enterprise a deconstruction of the way that modern mass media and other massive institutions protect the status quo?
Is the piece supposed to make us sympathize with the President? I have to admit that I kinda did, between the one-note portrayal of Kerry as an ineffectual sleepwalker and the constant pounding on Bush's frailties, as depicted by Guy Massey—stumbling over his words and struggling with his thoughts in pauses so long you could, if I can mix my metaphors, drive a truck through them.
I think there's content in the play, and I think that Massey's very exaggerated portrayal of its protagonist makes it hard for us to locate it. I think that a director, notwithstanding the company's presumably proud assertion never to use one, would be very helpful here, not only in drawing focus to whatever The Strangerer wants to be about, but in speeding up the very sluggish pacing of the play.
On the plus side, both O'Reilly and Maher himself (as Kerry) pretty much nail their impersonations. And the ending of the piece, which finds Kerry alone on stage, suggests some deeper possibilities for The Strangerer that I wish had been explored in place of the very long and repetitive Camus-by-way-of-Bush thing that dominates the piece, to not much effect, for what feels like far too long.