nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 30, 2012
Where has The President been all my life?
Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar wrote Egy, kettö, három in the late 1920s; Sidney Howard's translation One, Two, Three was presented on Broadway in 1930, and Billy Wilder's 1961 film of that title is in part inspired by it. But otherwise, as far as I know, this glittering diamond of a play has been a buried, forgotten treasure for all these many decades.
So thank goodness for alert artistic director Peter Dobbins of The Storm Theatre Company, who has brought us Molnar's brilliant work—in a new adaptation with a new title by Morwyn Brebner, which premiered at the Shaw Festival in 2008—in a splendid production that may be the finest one ever mounted by this exemplary troupe. Indeed, The President feels like a pinnacle of this current season, representing indie theater at its absolute finest. As the title character says in somewhat different context, run—do not walk, do not stride—to see this show. It's a delicious, delightful satire with the comic heart of the Marx Brothers and the social consciousness of Bertolt Brecht. (Don't let the Brecht comparison divert you: this is a hilarious, sweet-natured play. And it has perhaps the best closing line of any play I've ever seen.)
The show is all concept, but what a concept! Mr. Norrison is the president of a Gigantic Conglomerate. It is 2:45 on a Tuesday afternoon, and he is wrapping things up so that he can take a much-desired vacation. But his plans are turned upside-down with the arrival of Lydia, the young woman who has been left in his care by her massively wealthy parents. She has, it seems, secretly married a cabdriver who is a member of the Communist Party. Norrison, sensing a catastrophic end to his planned alliance with Lydia's father, does what any sensible man would do: he resolves to transform the young man, whose name is Tony, into the kind of son-in-law that Lydia's parents would like.
Of course her parents are already on a train to this very city, due to arrive at 4pm. Norrison has an hour to turn Tony into a titled aristocrat, diplomat, and captain of industry.
Will he succeed? There was never really any doubt in my mind: Norrison, like the Madwoman of Chaillot, doesn't seem to be governed by the laws of reality (or even gravity) as he singlemindedly sets about on his quixotic task. Indeed Norrison feels like the anti-Madwoman, embracing the principles of her avowed enemies to prove that nothing is impossible when enough money is available.
Molnar's plotting, by way of Brebner's sparking and witty adaptation, is meticulous and smart. The play unfolds in real time; Norrison enlists one of his secretaries to announce the time every ten minutes, which keeps the suspense and action flowing beautifully. In one long scene, Norrison interacts with a variety of underlings, assistants, tradesmen, etc., to achieve his goal, providing Storm's actors with a panoply of eccentric characters to bring to life. Some standouts: Josh Vasquez as a needy tailor, Ashton Crosby as a board member with a bad stomach, Brian J. Coffey as a custodian with a fancy title, Jessica Levesque as a scarily efficient secretary, and Edward Prostak as a doctor with principles (he won't fake a patient's temperature above 102.1 degrees). Spencer Aste and Cheri Paige Fogleman anchor the shenanigans as Norrison's personal secretary and Girl Friday, respectively; Becca Pesce is prettily manipulative as Lydia and Matthew Waterson the game mannequin who is made over as Tony. In the center of the maelstrom, in a stunning performance, is Joe Danbusky as the play's indomitable hero.
The entire piece is staged adeptly by Dobbins, who uses the unusual, intimate space at the Storm's home in the Theatre of the Church of Notre Dame to marvelous effect. The set, which consists mostly of a massive executive desk and chair, is by Ken Larson. The multitudinous costumes (there are 22 characters) are perfectly realized by Meagan Miller-McKeever. Lighting designer Michael Abrams and sound designer Amy Altadonna contribute mightily to the ambiance. And choreographer Tiffany Gulla brings us a charming surprise at the evening's end.
The President is the most fun I've had in the theatre in a long time. What a joy to discover this intelligent, pertinent satire in such an expert presentation! Just one more conclusive bit of evidence that the best of New York theatre is not always in the obvious place; journey uptown to the Storm and partake of this theatrical treat before it goes away.