… The World’s Most Exclusive Club …
Republicans and Democrats, winners and losers — how would the conversation go among five Presidents, former and current, if they were thrown together for an hour or so awaiting a formal event? This fast talking play answers that question with zest and wit.
It’s the day of Richard Nixon’s funeral, April 27, 1994, and the living Ex-Presidents – Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush – and Bill Clinton, recently elected — gather in the magnificent Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California, preliminary to attending the Nixon’s funeral. Nixon is on hand in a way, represented by a large, idealized photo portrait. Todd Edward Ivins’ handsome set design is particularly well designed for theater partly in the round, and the directing moves the actors with complementary flexibility.
At the last minute, Gerald Ford has decided not to deliver his eulogy, though he’s on the printed program. He’s “done enough for Nixon,” he says, which indeed he did, pardoning Nixon after the Watergate scandal: the burden Ford has carried as a result of granting that pardon is a central theme of the play. From the start, Ford said he granted the pardon to heal the nation, but the play, which presents Ford in an extremely appealing light, offers yet another way of looking at it, also favorable to Ford.
And who will pinch hit for Ford in eulogizing Nixon? Among the presidents, only Ronald Reagan ( “Nancy says I never saw a podium I didn’t like”) is ready to volunteer but the other presidents, aware of his signs of early Alzheimer’s disease, gently divert him from the task.
So there they all are and what a lot of fun it is to see them: athletic, solid Gerald Ford, soft southern talking and compassionate Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan with his slicked back hair, engaging over-ready smile and readiness to tell a joke, George H. W. Bush, the amused and elegant Yale man with a Skull and Bones handshake, and the talky new member in the “club,” Bill Clinton. The converse of “these are all Presidents” is “none of them is a wimp.” It’s clear they’re used to being in charge.
The conversation flows naturally while hitting the edges, from lofty presidential concerns to the bad jokes, from the ideal to the crass, from congenial to near violent, from the polite and self-serving evasions to the naked truth. They embrace in one moment and in the next are nearly at each others’ throats. Nearing the extremes, though, they draw back. These are, after all, politic men.
For all their differences, they all share personal pride in being members of “the most exclusive club in the world.” (Ronald Reagan sees it as “an Academy Award!”)
And they all remember the exact number of Americans killed in war during his watch. It’s a moving interlude as each recites the precise number of those who died in war during his term as President: I wondered if that would be true. The numbers are noticeably much larger now.
The best of the impersonations is Martin L’Herault: he simply is Jimmy Carter. John Bolger gives a pleasing impression of tall, strong Gerald Ford’s Midwestern directness. Mark Jacoby is smooth as George H. W. Bush, and conveys the intelligence and balanced judgment that led the author to make Bush highly admirable, though the elder Bush’s touch of the folksy could come across more fully. Steve Sheridan is charismatic as Reagan and dominates his scenes in an exciting way; still, the part is played so much for laughs, we lose the sense of the genuine personality. Brit Whittle doesn’t convey Bill Clinton’s self-assured and polished image — he’s too rumpled — but he does get the voice. Reese Madigan is on guard as Special Agent Michael Kirby. A small costume point but we’re dealing with Presidents: most of the actors could use better tailored suits.
As these affable but tough Presidents duck and parry, they illuminate the historical and political achievements and failures of each of them, and different ways of looking at these, as there are different ways of looking at Ford’s pardon of Nixon. This hour and a half play manages to be a wonderful and thought provoking – and totally entertaining — crash course in late 20th century American history, from Vietnam to beyond … there’s even speculation on which will we see first, a woman or an African-American as President? These Presidents, back in 1994, expect one or the other will come soon.
This is the east coast premier of Five Presidents, originally produced by Milwaukee Repertory Theater and Arizona Theatre Company. It plays at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, Long Island, New York through July 26, 2015. For more information and tickets: www.baystreet.org/calendar/five-presidents