By: Samuel L. Leiter
January 20, 2021: Ever since the presidential election of 2016, the media have been unable to resist the temptation to satirically eviscerate the winner, Donald J. Trump. TV, of course, has been relentless in its barrage of comical treatments, including shows like “The President Show” and “Our Cartoon President.” And who can forget the frequent appearances of Alec Baldwin pursing his lips beneath a teased blond wig on SNL. Nor can we ignore the many Trumpian imitators and lip-synchers amusing us on TikTok and Instagram, among other platforms. Sarah Cooper’s huge success mouthing Trump’s words catapulted her to stardom. And, of course, any stable genius can predict that Trump’s visage, voice, and mannerisms (as well as those of his family and enablers) will prove a perpetual source of material for writers and performers in the years to come. Love him or hate him, he’ll be circulating like the coronavirus in the media bloodstream forever. Just think: has the Fuhrer ever gone away?
Even the theatre, usually a step or two behind other media because of the time involved in producing shows (and the speed at which they become dated), has been unable to resist putting Trump’s foibles on stage. This has been either directly, subtextually, or with the kind of passing zingers that New York audiences laugh at the way they do at the mention of New Jersey or Brooklyn. The first notable Trump play was produced only half a year into his term. It had, in fact, been written almost overnight, right before the election. Even before Trump occupied the Oval Office, plays were tossing dung at him.
Thinking to compile my own critical reactions to Trumpian treatments over the period of his presidency, I searched through my hundreds of reviews. I saw most Broadway and Off-Broadway shows between 2016 and 2020, but was a little less active during the first two years of the Trump presidency, which is why I missed the second and third plays in Richard Nelson’s Gabriel family trio, mentioned below. I wrote for four different sites—Theatre’s Leiter Side (my blog), Theater Pizzazz, The Broadway Blog, and Theater Life, so it wasn’t always simple finding all the shows that dealt with or mentioned DJT.
The great majority of the reviews I cite are from Theatre’s Leiter Side. But they are certainly enough to give a strong taste (distaste?) of how the New York theatre reacted to the aberration represented by the past four years. Except for the occasional typo correction, my comments remain as they were when first posted. In several cases, I’ve provided the full review; in others, just a quotation or summary. Each play, you’ll notice, whether entirely or only peripherally Trump-related, does so with malice aforethought. On the other hand, Trump himself appears in none of them.
I apologize for the length of this piece, which is why it’s being posted in two parts. I would, however, be interested in learning if I overlooked any works about President Tweety and how he was treated in such plays. Except for Julius Caesar, which comes at the end of Part 2, what follows is a chronological tour through the shows that somehow confronted Trump.
I saw the earliest example at the Public Theater on March 16, 2016, when the Republican primary was in the process of crowning Trump as the party’s nominee. Burdened with the unwieldy title of The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family: Hungry, it was the first in a series of three plays by Richard Nelson that followed the Gabriels, a suburban New York family, through the political year. I was able to see only the first, Hungry, so I recommend that those wishing to learn more about the second and third, What Did You Expect?, which opened in September, and Women of a Certain Age, which arrived in November, check out the reviews on Show-Score.com, to which I’ve linked their titles.
Although Trump’s role is more allusive than specific, I offer here my full review as the appetizer to the Nelson’s three-course meal.
Anyone who’s relished each or any of Richard Nelson’s Apple Family Plays (2010-2013), set in Rhinebeck, NY, each with its topical political ambience, is likely to hunger for even more of the same. To satisfy that appetite, Nelson has initiated a three-play, follow-up series about a different Rhinebeck family, the Gabriels, who live around the corner from the Apples; each installment is set on a specific day over a period of nine months during this unprecedentedly fractious election year. The first play in Nelson’s “real time” progression, Hungry, is set within the span of 6:00 and 8:00 p.m. on Friday, March 4 (the night the play opened), a few days after the Super Tuesday primaries; play number two opens during the fervor of September’s election season, and the third is scheduled for Election Day itself. Nelson’s got his work cut out for himself.
Consistently engaging, Hungry continues the same naturalistic, conversational atmosphere as its predecessors; those plays, though, were a bit more emotionally and intellectually flavorsome. Political junkies hoping for the give and take of a family gathering in which there’s a free-for-all reaction to the campaigns can be forgiven for thinking they were promised a highly seasoned dish from which the salt and pepper were omitted. Those seeking subtler palette pleasers, though, may find them in the subtext.
The Gabriels have gathered in Rhinebeck for a ceremony to scatter the ashes of novelist and playwright Thomas Gabriel, who died four months earlier. We meet Thomas’s third wife, Mary (Maryann Plunkett), a retired physician, who carries the play’s greatest emotional weight; Thomas’s brother, George (Jay O. Sanders), a piano teacher and cabinetmaker; George’s wife, Hannah (Lynn Hawley), a catering employee; Thomas’s sister, Joyce (Amy Warren), a costume designer; Thomas’s first wife, Karin (Meg Gibson), an acting teacher, whose outsider status is gently, but amusingly, alluded to; and the feisty matriarch, Patricia (Roberta Maxwell), who appears only toward the end but is constantly talked about and looked in on.
Everything transpires in the kitchen, suggested merely by appliances, tables, and chairs in a three-quarters round space; why two designers, Susan Hilferty and Jason Ardizzone-West, were required, is a puzzlement. Jennifer Tipton did the unobtrusive lighting. Like flies on the wall, we overhear the minutiae of smart but familiar conversation as a dinner of ratatouille, pasta, and apple crisp (Thomas’s favorite) is prepared. Vegetables and apples are sliced and diced, chopped and peeled, all in as intricately real a way as possible. It’s not long before the fragrance of real cooking fills the space.
Aside from the preparation of the meal, little happens as the characters ramble, as in most actual conversations. They talk about Rhinebeck, a lovely town the family senses is leaving them behind as it attracts a much richer class of inhabitants. There’s discussion of certain unwelcome renovations to the local Franklin D. Roosevelt Museum. We hear passages read from a late 19th-century cookbook, and from a patronizing article about the town and its people by a snooty New Yorker now residing in the village. Family issues arise and humor occasionally intrudes, especially when a huge laugh arises from a story about how all the nation’s recent problems stem from the Bill-Monica sex scandal.
Perhaps 15 minutes of stage time actually addresses the presidential race, during which the Democrat-leaning family’s fears for the future are expressed. Although few specifics are on the table (we hear Megyn Kelly’s name but not Donald J. Trump’s), there’s a definite interest (and nervousness) about the chances of Hillary Clinton becoming the first female president.
Like the ratatouille prepared on stage, Hungry is an appetizing but meatless dish. It’s satisfying principally because of how expertly its realistic dialogue and behavior is directed by Nelson himself and acted by the superb ensemble (Sanders and his real-life wife, Plunkett, were also in The Apple Plays). One assumes—or, at any rate, hopes—that the play’s tentative political content is the appetizer for the more nutritious courses to be served up later in the year. More meat, please!
More political red meat, undercooked as it may have been, was served up in my next encounter with a Trump-inspired play. Written just before the 2016 election, and first produced in at a new play festival in Los Angeles in March 2017, it opened soon after at New World Stages, where I saw it on May 26. My review on The Broadway Blog follows:
It’s not even six months since Donald J. Trump took office as the 45th president of the United States, but New Yorkers are already seeing a mainstream play, Building the Wall, about his policies. Its writer is Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan (All the Way), who specializes in political drama, and its two actors are the highly regarded James Badge Dale and Tamara Tunie. Such a rapid response to national politics is a theatrical rarity and speaks to the urgency so many feel regarding our current administration.
From the moment two years ago that Trump announced he’d be running for president, not a day has passed when his name hasn’t dominated the news cycle. Mainstream theater, though, usually takes its sweet time to weigh in on current events. For one reason, today’s breaking news quickly becomes ancient history. For another—and this applies to Building the Wall (written in a week)—serious political playwriting shouldn’t be rushed.
In recent months every other play—even classical revivals—seems to have had at least one comic zinger viewable as a satirical shot at the Commander-in-Chief. It reminds me of how audiences in repressive regimes laugh at superficially innocuous lines they interpret as coded messages. But there are no codes in Building the Wall, which, as its title implies, makes no bones about being tied directly to the president’s xenophobic immigration policies.
Set two years from now [ed. 2019], the 80-minute play takes place in the steel-gray meeting room (realistically designed by Antje Ellerman and coolly lit by Tyler Micoleau) of a prison in El Paso, Texas. Badge, wearing a prisoner’s orange jumpsuit, is Rick, a Texas-accented, former military man and prison supervisor awaiting execution. The other character is Gloria, an African-American professor who’s come to interview Rick about his crime for a book she plans to write.
Rick was advised not to speak in his own defense during the trial, so Gloria has come to find out the real truth behind what he did. Once he overcomes his initial suspicion of her motives, Rick explains why he believes as strongly as he does in Trump, whose policies led to what caused his eventual imprisonment.
What he says, though, is just a repetition of all the usual Fox News talking points, just as his Hillary Clinton snipes repeat the standard conservative line. There are no surprises here but, for all its irritating familiarity, hearing the issues bantered back and forth between two solid actors has a certain fascination.
Then we get to Rick’s crime. Schenkkan imagines that, following a horrific terrorist act in Times Square, the Trump administration instituted martial law and began incarcerating huge numbers of immigrants. When Rick’s for-profit prison proved increasingly unable to handle the massive overcrowding, and his bottom line-sensitive corporate bosses refused to take responsibility for the nightmarish aftermath, he fell into the trap of believing that desperate times call for desperate measures. Thus his present situation.
Riveting as much of this is, it fails the credibility test. It’s impossible to believe that the “truth” of an incident that makes Abu Ghraib sound like kindergarten hazing is being revealed only in a prison interview with an academic. Did Trump jail the entire media along with the immigrants? It’s also impossible, among other things, to believe that the level of atrocity involved went unreported until it was eventually leaked in yet another implausible development.
Ari Edelson’s direction, helped by Bart Fasbender’s subtly threatening soundscape, manages to maintain the tension but has a few blocking problems. Gloria sometimes takes detailed notes at a table and sometimes doesn’t, although everything Rick says has weight. When, presumably for visual variety, she abandons her notes to talk with him downstage, the prospective accuracy of her reporting flies the coop.
Although neither character is fully believable, Dale does a good job at humanizing Rick’s jittery combination of defiance and guilt. Gloria, however, does little but ask questions, and Tunie can do little to make her anything but a stock character from a TV procedural.
Every day of the current administration provides enough drama for a play based on fact, not farfetched speculation, as to what might and might not occur. While it’s easy enough to sympathize with a critical response to any number of Trump’s policies and their potential implications, it would be easier still if such a response hewed closer to reality. That, sad to say, is frightening enough.
Only two months later, the tiny Triad, on the Upper West Side, offered a lighthearted musical slap at the populist palooka. I saw it on July 1, 2017.
If you’ve just awoken from a two-year coma and need a refresher on what’s been going on in American politics while your lights have been out, you might appreciate Me the People: The Trump America Musical, a mildly humorous political revue about the 45th POTUS. On the other hand, if you’ve been awake and paying attention, it’s unlikely you’ll learn much from Me the People, or, for that matter, find it all that funny. Trump’s presidency, for all its outlandishness, has been a nightmare for progressives and, despite its potential as comic fodder, nothing could be as ridiculous (or tragic) as the thing itself.
Ever since Trump first announced his candidacy, we’ve endured a 24/7 cycle, not only of political news about him, but a nonstop comic barrage shooting anything from howitzer blasts to sling shots at everything in his domain.
First, there are his physical features: his hair, his face, his skin color, his chin(s), his belly, his hands, his sex organ, and so on. Then we have his ties, his suits, his family, his father, his gestures, his language, his buildings, his businesses, his taxes, his wealth, his reading, his TV watching, his marriages, and so on. And, of course, there are his lies, his tweets, his policies, his arrogance, his racism, his crudity, his sexism, his supporters, you name it. If you’re a regular viewer of CNN or MSNBC you probably know more, and have stronger feelings, about him than about any previous holder of the office.
TV comedy, of course, has benefitted greatly from his presence; he not only boosted Alec Baldwin’s career, he’s a regular target of all the major TV hosts, from Maher to Colbert to Meyers to Bee to Noah and so on down the line. There’s even a series about him starring Anthony Atamanuik called “The President Show.” Numerous New York plays have squeezed in one-liners aimed in Trump’s direction, sometimes subtly and sometimes not; Off-Broadway plays like Building the Wall have taken him on directly while Broadway’s 1984 [ed. looked at below] is assumed to be attacking his ideas indirectly.
All of the above makes it nearly impossible for an intimate Off-Broadway revue like Me the People to add anything new to the cultural onslaught, even with an ever-evolving script so up-to-date it references the Mika-Joe Twitter controversy. “Saturday Night Live,” whose most popular sketches last season were aimed at Trump, spent only a small part of its weekly shows getting on his case; however, being reminded of almost every creature in this so-called leader’s black lagoon (a.k.a. swamp) for a nonstop, 85 minutes can be a slog, no matter how much you enjoy seeing Trump get his lumps. Still, given the need for some outlet, any outlet, for theatregoers to vent their disgust, shows like this, mixed bags as they are, perform a valuable public service.
Conceived by Jim Russek, Nancy Holson, and Jay Falzone (who choreographed and directed), Me the People is one of those shows that makes its points by adding new lyrics to well-known songs. Nancy Holson’s book (what there is of it) and delightfully apt lyrics go, with barely any narrative linkage, from one number to the other with a cast of five (four, as noted below, when I went) rapidly changing Stephen Smith’s numerous costumes and Kathy Pecevich’s deliberately cheesy wigs.
The routines include having Ben Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Betsy Ross satirize the desecration of the Constitution to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”; Betsy De Vos ringing out with “We’re Screwing Your Schools” to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Be True to Your School”; a lounge singer and Sigmund Freud knocking off Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” (no explanation required); the transformation of the Eagles’ “Welcome to the Hotel California” into “Welcome to the Hotel Mar-A-Lago”; Mike Pence’s singing, to the tune of “Orange Colored Sky,” that “Flash, Bam, Alakazam, I can fix you if you’re gay”; and lots more where these came from. By the way, “Rockin’ Robin,” with its “tweet tweet tweet” refrain, gets a central place in the show.
The Triad is a cabaret space, and drinks are served before and during the performance. Its tiny stage is set with only a simple flat at center on which the “W” in We the People is turned upside down to say Me the People. In addition to those already cited, the caricatures on hand include a Russian spy, Kim Jong Un (“How Do You Solve a Problem Like Korea?”), Ivanka, Jared, Melania, Paul Ryan (singing about the “mighty bungle” of health care reform to “In the Jungle”), and many others crammed into the presidential clown car (among them, an overdone Richard Nixon) doing the snarky honors. DJT himself never appears.
The most memorable number comes at the end when Hillary Clinton rocks new lyrics sung to Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You,” supported by Bill Clinton and Tim Kaine, the latter wearing a horrible blond wig that more closely suggests Trump’s do than that of the ex-candidate for Veep. The song’s angry, post-election takedown includes lines like this, which alone are worth waiting for.
OOH OOH OOH
YOU VOTED FOR JILL STEIN AND
YOU FUCKED YOURSELVES AND SO
AND FUCK HER TOO.
It’s not Cole Porter but, ooh ooh ooh, it sounds so good.
When I attended, James Higgins, the musical director, continued in that function while also replacing Aisha Alia Dukes as part of the ensemble, which may have altered the production sequence and performance dynamic. At any rate, a number in the script that has the Supreme Court mimicking the Supremes singing a version of “Stop In the Name of Love” (retitled: “Stop In the Name of Us”) was missing.
The other performers are Mitchel Kawash, Richard Spitaletta, and Mia Weinberger. They cavort with nonstop energy but the impersonations are mostly ragged and singing ability is not a company strength. Only Weinberger displays the kind of standout, all-around, musical and comic talents, not to mention appearance, that augur well for a bright showbiz future.
Judging by the audience response, many people are itching to laugh loudly at our Tweeter-in-Chief, regardless of how sophomoric the jokes may be. Me the People will help scratch that itch, especially when the cast (and audience) concludes with:
AFTER ALL THAT’S TRANSPIRED
WE’LL SAY “DONALD, YOU’RE FIRED!”
AND FUCK YOU!
Not all anti-Trump shows were as explicit in their condemnation. Some attacked him through the back door of literary allusion, as was the case, most notably, of a British adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, which I saw on July 3, 2017, only a couple of days after attending Me the People. The year 2017, in fact, was the most active of the Trump years when it came to putting his shortcomings onstage. Could it be that his personality and politics had so quickly become toxic that no one wanted to go near him with a 10-foot pole? Here’s my response to 1984.
Picture this: fronting one 44th Street theatre, the Belasco, are billboards advertising The Terms of My Surrender, Michael Moore’s upcoming one-man war against our 45th president. And right next door, at the recently restored Hudson, are billboards inviting you to Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. The juxtaposition of these shows speaks potently to the urgency of this moment in our political history.
Icke and Macmillan’s adaptation, a 2014 West End smash hit that’s also played on various international stages, was written before Donald J. Trump became president; that, though, doesn’t make its themes of life under a totalitarian regime ruled by an all-seeing, all-knowing Big Brother any the less relevant, as proved by the huge jump in sales of Orwell’s book after Trump was elected.
While Orwell’s writing can be appropriated to argue against left-wing excesses, like attempts to suppress unpopular speech on American campuses, it’s difficult not to note how much more closely his ideas mirror our Trumpian universe. To cite a recent example, Trump’s tweeting a video of himself wrestling to the ground someone with a CNN label placed over his face. Take that, Free Press!
Some Orwellian themes, like incessant war, government surveillance, or even the acceptance of torture (if not so blatantly as by Trump), reflect policies that spread across presidents and party lines. Others, though, especially the novel’s depiction of a demagogic world that aligns what Kellyanne Conway called “alternate facts” (what Orwell termed “doublethink”) with objective truth and scientific fact, seem particularly pertinent. In 1984 if the state says 2+2=5 you’d better agree if you want to keep your fingertips.
Icke and Macmillan compress Orwell’s book into 101 briskly paced, intermissionless minutes, telling the story of Winston Smith (Tom Sturridge), a citizen of Oceania. Winston’s job as an editor at the Ministry of Truth is to use the language of Newspeak to rewrite/revise published history, or “unperson” those whose existence must forever be eliminated.
The focus is on Winston’s heroic bid to challenge the oppressive, authoritarian, thought-controlling system by writing a diary about it. The plot covers his clandestine love affair with Julia (Olivia Wilde), his ultimate capture, and the brutal torture inflicted on him by the deceptively friendly O’Brien (Reed Birney), designed to force Winston to accept as truth whatever the leadership says it is. Straightforward as this sounds, narrative clarity is not the play’s strong suit.
Icke and Macmillan’s script and staging (they also directed) choose to embody the material expressionistically; theatrical devices—including powerful blasts of sound (credit: Tom Gibbons) and light (credit: Natasha Chivers) that punctuate the action—and dreamlike sequences tend to dehumanize the characters and situations. This interferes with our ability to empathize with Winston’s dilemma, which increasingly seems more metaphorical than real.
For the first two-thirds of the play, the set (by Chloe Lamford, who also did the costumes), which serves (boringly) for multiple locales, is a wood-paneled room whose upstage wall is lined with translucent windows. Hovering above it is a large screen used for computer images and video scenes of Julia and Winston during their presumably secluded rendezvous in an antiques-filled storeroom. This live feed broadcasts much of their chemistry-challenged affair; surely, it’s to make us feel complicit as spies.
When Winston is arrested, there’s such a fusillade of overwhelming sounds—a helicopter’s whirring among them—searchlights, and SWAT team action it seems like using an elephant to crush a gnat. The effect of the stark white walls that drop in to create a torture chamber, Room 101, accentuated by the presence of robot-like torturers in white, hazmat-like coveralls, is striking but another example of theatrical overkill.
There’s a lot of blood in the controversial torture/brainwashing scene—audience members are reported to have vomited and fainted—but it’s tamer than expected. A couple in front of me even tittered—and no, it didn’t seem from nervousness—but their reaction was understandable. It’s like seeing Gloucester’s eyes gouged out in King Lear: how yucky can you get?
Wilde and Sturridge do their best but, given the limits on their expressivity in Orwell’s world, neither is particularly interesting. Reed Birney steals the play with his accustomed nice guy, rational demeanor as he carries out his horrendous duties in the name of the party.
Orwell’s novel is scary; the play based on it only mildly so, unless the physical stuff disturbs you. If you want to be scared, really scared about politics, trust reality every time.
That, I think, is enough of Trump for one day. Part 2, which covers The Terms of My Surrender and Oskar Eustis’s staging of Julius Caesar, among other shows, continues tomorrow.