The Bully Pulpit
nytheatre.com review by Ross Chappell
May 14, 2008
While Teddy Roosevelt would heartily applaud the energy and honesty of this production, I feel certain he would cringe at one audience member's query during intermission, "Do you suppose the perspiration is real?" "Yes," I wanted to say, "of course the perspiration is real. There's an actor up on that stage working his heart out for you. He has practically re-animated Teddy Roosevelt and is merrily bull-whipping us dullards through the history we'd just as soon dumb down and consign to primary school textbooks. Trust me, it's real."
As a fan of one-person shows, I tend to see a lot of them, and Michael O. Smith has created one of the best I've seen in recent years. The audience sits with the former president on his 60th birthday at his beloved Long Island home, Sagamore Hill. In leading us through a wide range of topics (conservation, progressivism, parenthood, equality, the need for citizen involvement) Teddy proceeds to engage us in the kind of forthright, potent conversation that made him one of the most popular presidents in history. His insistence that "the most uncomfortable truth is a safer companion than the most pleasant falsehood" perfectly summarizes the evening. Smith has written a warm, smart, engaging script that is a bracing gallop through the story of Teddy's political career and his personal story. It's a fascinating balance of fist-pounding assertions and quiet revelations. Although famous quotes and stories are peppered throughout (Rough Riders and political rebukes abound), Smith has gone to great lengths to create a revealing conversation that honors the man rather than simply regurgitating historical facts. It's also a marvelously funny show. There is a careful balance between the sharp, intelligent leader and the wonderfully fun Teddy, and both are historically accurate.
I say "Teddy" rather than President Roosevelt because, as a performer, Smith excels at making the audience feel they have been welcomed into the sanctuary of this affable, humorous storyteller. Teddy winks and nods, routinely quizzing his audience and shouting "Give that man a silver dollar!" when someone answers correctly. Smith's presentation is so seamless that it's easy to feel the encouragements and admonitions are coming from Teddy himself. His moments of vulnerability are carefully chosen and never feel cheap or overdone. Also, his physical work is simply outstanding. The tongue clicks and fist pounding could so easily become affectations, but Smith pulls everything off magnificently, right down to the mid-story costume changes.
Byam Stevens's staging has Teddy thoroughly at home in his surroundings, and the brisk pace is near-perfect. It yields a show that seems shorter than it is without ever feeling rushed. Once again, the balance of the show is allowed to shine through. The design elements are excellent. In recreating the North Room at Sagamore Hill, Charles Corcoran's meticulous attention to detail is staggering. The rich wooden walls, the mounted trophies, and the gorgeous wooden furnishings are all stunning. It's a set that allows for a remarkable degree of movement and variety of usage by the actor and is complimented by equally meticulous prop design by Mary Robinette Kowal. From the drum Teddy pounds to the books he leafs through, not one item feels out of place. Jill Nagle's lighting design is subtle and effective, right down to the slowly fading sun in the windows. Likewise, Tom Shread's sound design is effective without feeling over-produced. All the elements come together beautifully. Teddy's brief speech excerpts are a perfect example: he stands on a raised walkway portion of the set, in a simple spotlight, with a carefully implemented mic echo, and the transition from his home to Chicago speech platform and back again is instantaneous.
This show is about a political dynamo who demonstrated allegiance to the citizens of the country rather than to Big Business and Special Interests. With decades of back-and-forth power plays in our government, this country could use a good swift kick from Teddy Roosevelt. ("Walk softly but carry a big stick" indeed.) However, it is also a show about a son, husband, and father who is determined to see the lighter side of life and refuse to let his personal devils beat him. Both sides of Teddy are accessible in this show, and they are equally important and immeasurably valuable. After seeing it, I felt compelled to call my mother to say "thank you" and then run for public office. Perhaps I'll do both. Teddy would approve.