BWW Review: ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN? Takes Its Text From Trump Cabinet Senate Confirmation Hearings
Visitors observing the United States Senate in session from the chamber galleries are instructed to refrain from applauding, booing or - perhaps most crucial - laughing at their public servants as they undergo official business.
But what if our representatives performed their duties in an atmosphere, not unlike a sports event, where immediate public response is a part of the work environment? Viewers attending Thursday night's performance of ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN?, a staged reading at Town Hall taken from the transcripts of the nomination hearings of four of President Donald Trump's cabinet appointees, offered a taste.
The project actually began in England, believe it or not, as the brainchild of Nicolas Kent, Artistic Director of London's National Theatre. Kent edited the more than 24 hours of questioning into a roughly two and a half hour theatrical presentation, admittedly focusing on the more dramatic interactions between the proposed cabinet members and the senators from the Democratic Party.
As explained in his notes for the published script, "The function of this play is to try to lay bare, as much as possible, the philosophy, character and policy ideals of the new Trump administration."
In partnership with New York's Public Theater, Kent directed a British cast in the play's premiere one-night engagement at the West End's Vaudeville Theatre. Thursday night's performance was also helmed by Kent, but this time with an American cast.
Given the left-leaning proclivities of New York's theatre audiences, the crowd's reactions were loud and one-sided, particularly with the advantage of being able to look back at events from the beginning of the year through today's lens. The title ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN? was used for its April 27th London performance, but its Watergate reference was even more significant in New York, when the piece was performed two days after the firing of FBI Director James Comey.
The warm-up for the evening was a collection of Donald Trump tweets projected onto an upstage screen, which would be used throughout the evening to identify the participants. The entire performance consisted of seated actors reading from their scripts, but the evening was nevertheless riveting, thanks to the polished performances by the company and the historic nature of the text.
The first act opened with Bill Irwin, sporting a Tennessee accent, as Senator Bob Corker calling the Foreign Relations Committee to order for the purpose of questioning Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, played by Alec Baldwin. After Tillerson's opening remarks expressing his concerns about relations with Russia, China, North Korea and the threat of radical Islamic terrorists, the questioning began with Joe Morton as Ben Cardin.
But it wasn't until Raul Esparza's Marco Rubio began showing exasperation for not getting direct answers regarding his inquiries about Vladimir Putin's possible involvement in America's election and Russian war crimes in Aleppo that the audience began heartily laughing, as though the proceedings were scripted satire. At this point it became apparent that, although the actors were fulfilling their mission to accurately recreate what happened in the Senate chambers, the timing of their performances would be unavoidably altered by the audience's response.
The biggest cheers of support were reserved for Ron Rifkin's roaring Bernie Sanders, as he passionately spoke out for the need for universal health care during his questioning of Secretary of Health and Human Services candidate Dr. Tom Price (David Costabile), and for Ellen Burstyn's Elizabeth Warren, as she tersely provided the doctor with the statistics he lacked regarding the defunding of Medicare and Medicaid.
As the first half came to a close, Denis O'Hare, as Republican Senator Orin Hatch, openly whined about his Democratic colleagues' lack of support for a candidate he considered to be a man of integrity.
Sanders was once again the center of attention during the questioning of Scott Pruitt (Aasif Mandvi), when he could not get the candidate for Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency to agree with him that human activity is the fundamental reason for climate change.
After his record regarding violence against women and segregation was seriously examined, the consideration of Jeff Sessions (Nathan Osgood) for Attorney General was concluded with a scathing speech by ReGina Taylor's Diane Feinstein, pronouncing him as a Trump yes-man who will not stand up to the president to defend civil and reproductive rights.
As was the case during the actual hearings, questioning was occasionally interrupted by protestors in the audience, who were escorted out as they shouted their demands for the recognition of global warming and their defense of the Black Lives Matter movement.
While political theatre has always been a part of New York's artistic landscape, the prominence of Off-Broadway non-profits like The Public are bound to give higher visibility to such events during the current administration. Especially if real life continues to provide the texts.