Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Mueller: The Off-Broadway Trumpfenfestspiel

Somebody had one of the same ideas I had for familiarizing people with the Mueller Report, that of a dramatic reading of enough of the witness testimony to add up to an intelligible story—

In fact, a distinguished playwright did, Robert Schenkkan, perhaps best noted for another political piece, All the Way, which won the Best Play Tony for its Broadway run in 2014, starring Bryan Cranston as Lyndon Baines Johnson, meaning somebody who was able to get the thing done, which happened last night, at the Riverside Church in uptown Manhattan, presented by a nonprofit education-and-advocacy organization called Law Works, and directed by Scott Ellis, with a pretty amazing cast including John Lithgow as a diabolical but engaging Donald Trump (you haven't lived until you've watched Lithgow crumpling into despair as he says, "Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I'm fucked") and Annette Bening as a counter-narrator reading the occasional sidebar of text that was not from the Report.

The performance was streamed live (as I learned too late to see it, but I watched it this afternoon) and is freely distributable on any website you want to distribute it from, so the first thing I want to do is give it to you right here before I move on to any spoilers:

After which just a few words on what I think it is and what it's likely to work at.

The chosen subject matter, as the title communicates, is the approximately ten acts of obstruction of justice of which we can be pretty sure Robert Mueller thinks Donald Trump is guilty, with one extended scene for each, a videotaped recital of the ten points by some big-name actors who weren't at the Riverside, including Mark Hamill and Sigourney Weaver, before the performance, prefatory remarks by Bill Moyers (making you feel as if you're in a dream PBS which is permitted to address real public issues), and an opening dialogue between Bening and Kevin Kline as Mueller making the transition into Act One ("President Trump Asked the FBI Director to Shut Down the Investigation Into National Security Advisor Michael Flynn"), when the drama proper begins.

On first viewing it seemed to start kind of slowly, and Mueller's own text drags, as it did for me in my first sketch, though not as much with Kline reading it, but the dialogue keeps pulling you in pretty well, and the best part is, as James Poniewozik writes for The Times, it's a comedy, from the opening moment, as
President Trump (John Lithgow) meets with then-F.B.I. director James Comey (Justin Long) over dinner.
“I need loyalty!” Mr. Lithgow fulminates.
“You will always get honesty from me,” Mr. Long answers, stiffly.
“That’s what I want. Honest loyalty.
If you’ve followed this case, you’ve already heard this story — not just in the Mueller report, but in newspapers like this one, back in 2017. But something about Mr. Lithgow’s bluster and the way he hits “loyalty” a little harder than “honest” nails something essential about his character, and the assembled audience cracks up.
It's pretty funny, too, though a bit underrehearsed, so that the actors don't get all the laughs they deserve—the one that stuck out for me was when Trump is listing the people that didn't "flip" on him: "Just three men, Manafort, Corsi..." and Mueller cuts hims off, "Redacted" (because the third man is Stone, whose investigation is ongoing). Lithgow reads it as if he can only remember two names, Kline takes too long to deliver his response, and the moment falls flat.

As to whether it's a good way to communicate to the wider public what's in the Mueller Report, I'm not so sure. It could be partly that the comedy itself encourages not taking it seriously, but I think it's a problem that the script relies so heavily on volume II, the obstruction section, as to play down the suggestion that any underlying crimes took place, making too much room for the interpretation of the Trump character as merely ridiculous, blocking the investigation for no real reason, like a cartoon, the way Tom chases Jerry (unlike Fudd and Bugs, whose enmity is real).

And I don't know whether it's well suited to making people understand there are important things they don't already know. As you see here, a reviewer like Poniewozik is anxious to let you know he didn't learn anything from it (disclosure: I learned stuff), and yet doesn't give you any indication whether he thinks Trump is guilty or not. He's had a good time, but he hasn't come to the point of questioning anything and doesn't realize he's supposed to, so perhaps it's a failure.

Tracy Brown at The Los Angeles Times does better at pointing out the activist character of the piece, simply by interviewing the playwright:
“The lawyers did a superb job, but it's a legal document… it's a little hard to work through as a citizen. But it's a classic Watergate story, where it's not just the crime but also the coverup that gets people in trouble,” Schenkkan told The Times Monday afternoon in advance of the performance.
“We hope to make the central narrative of the report very clear to anyone: What actually happened; who did what, when and why; and why it matters. I hope people will find it illuminating and thought-provoking, and ultimately move them to action, whatever that means to them,” he added.

Which in the play itself culminates with Bening reading Article II section 4 of the Constitution, on the power of impeachment, and the work comes to a close with a repeated reading of the ten acts of obstruction. No audience should be able to hide from that, whatever the critics do.

I'm very glad somebody's done it, in any case. Watch it (under 90 minutes) and let me know what you think.

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