BWW Reviews: DEAD PRESIDENT'S CLUB is Alive and Well in Austin
As a relative newbie to Austin, I have not seen The Dead President's Club until recently, but it's well known that Austin Playhouse's revivals of it are more frequent than political sex scandals. But while the later may induce eye-rolling and head-scratching, The Dead President's Club is met with uproarious laughter. Yes, the show gets revived frequently, but with popularity numbers that would greatly overpower any political candidate, it's easy to see why.
The satiric comedy by Larry L. King features an incredibly simple premise. The recently deceased Nixon finds himself in purgatory along with former presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Calvin Coolidge, and Harry S. Truman. All are at the mercy of a special committee which has been tasked with determining if the men will go to heaven or hell, but the committee seems locked in perpetual indecisiveness. Sounds like Congress, doesn't it? Nixon finally gets fed up and decides to take the whole thing up with God.
King's writing is far better than his basic "Four Presidents walk into
a bar purgatory" idea should allow. There are a few expected jokes, but most are refreshingly original, and there are even a few occasional moments of tenderness. Director Don Toner takes a sort of "wind it up and let it go" approach to the material. The humor come from the material and performers, as it should, though some of his staging (particularly one scene in which Nixon and LBJ share a bottle of whiskey) is peppered with side-splitting physical comedy.
But it's Toner's exceedingly talented cast that carries the show. Hans Venable is fantastic as the "Heavenly Bureaucrat," a mousey clerk who, when given power, turns into an authoritative drill sergeant. Huck Huckaby is hysterical as Coolidge, despite the brevity of his lines (the show makes a running gag out of how Coolidge was a man of few words), and Tom Parker is great as Truman, though he has relatively little to do. Michael Stuart plays LBJ as a charming but foul-mouthed good ol' boy, and David Stahl is outstanding as the childish, tantrum throwing Nixon. Both are able to transcend the Saturday Night Live-esque shtick of their roles, and they're best when they get to share the stage with one another. And as God, Jacqui Cross is downright hilarious. She's sassy, unpredictable, and wildly funny. After all, any God who would allow some men to achieve the presidency of the United States must have a sense of humor.
While Austin has seen The Dead President's Club many times before, comedies this good deserve a little reincarnation. This comedy certainly gets my vote.
Running time: Approximately 2 hours, including one 15 minute intermission.
NOTE: Recommended for mature audiences only.
THE DEAD PRESIDENT'S CLUB plays the Austin Playhouse inside the Highland Mall at 6001 Airport Blvd, Austin, 78752 now thru November 3rd. Performances are Thursday - Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 5pm. Tickets are $28-$30. For tickets and information, please visit www.austinplayhouse.com