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Theatre in Review: The Trial of an American President (Theatre Row)

Tony Carlin, Michael Rogers. Photo: Ken Nahoum.

"What if?" These words are heard repeatedly in The Trial of an American President. What if, indeed: Dick Tarlow's play, written with the research assistance of Bill Smith, imagines a trial of George W. Bush, in the International Criminal Court in The Hague, for crimes against humanity in the course of his reckless prosecution of the War on Terror. If convicted, he could spend years in prison.

Finding that one a little hard to swallow? The first, but hardly the last, problem with Tarlow's script is that it has to conjure up a straw man version of Bush, who has appeared in the courtroom voluntarily in order to clear his name. It's an understatement to say that this behavior doesn't square with a certain Houston-based retiree who spends his free time making oil paintings. Even less persuasive is the sweaty, edgy character who keeps shifting in his chair, insisting that he acted in good faith. This is usually followed up with a tribute to "a God that I have a deep personal relationship with and also whom I often call on for guidance in my moments of doubt." So often does the script harp on Bush's religion that one might think he is on trial for being a Christian.

If you're expecting that the point of staging this mock trial is to provide fresh insights into the disasters of the Bush Administration, you've come to the wrong place. The all-too-familiar episodes are aired once again: the futile search for Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction; the use of torture, often against innocents, and, in particular, the ghastly scandal of Abu Ghraib; and the chaos that followed as efforts at nation-building proved worse than useless. All are excellent points, but The Trial of an American President fails to make a case for why this story must be revisited now, and its assertion that Bush may be a war criminal is in no way novel. In any case, the playwright isn't remotely interested in any kind of dramatic exchange. The arguments are laid out in detail against Bush, who responds only in generalities and clich├ęs: "We were at war. And in a war unfortunate things happen," or "My gut said that [Hussein] had to be removed."

Perhaps the most telling thing about The Trial of an American President is the confusion at its core; even as it presents Bush as a Bible-beating bumpkin, it insists that he was part of some vast right-wing conspiracy, knowingly launching an illegal war against Iraq, purposely lying about Hussein's weaponry, and willingly allowing innocent civilians to die in Fallujah as retribution for the death of four contractors from the firm Blackwater. Tarlow also dismisses the popular notion on the left that Bush was basically a puppet for a far-better-informed, bellicose Dick Cheney. Then again, if the author followed that line of reasoning too closely, then we might be attending The Trial of an American Vice-President.

There are only three actors on stage; that Tony Carlin isn't very effective as Bush is hardly his fault, as he isn't given one fresh or interesting thing to say. (If Tarlow were really convinced of the strength of his arguments, surely he would allow Bush a little complexity; he might even concede that, in the aftermath of the events of 9/11, the facts of the situation might not be as clear as they now are, with the benefit of hindsight.) As the prosecutor, Michael Rogers puts his resonant speaking voice to good use, but there's something oily and superior in his delivery that, oddly, makes one feel sorry for Bush; his performance is key to the smugness that pervades the entire production. Mahira Kakkar, as the play's narrator, is a constantly engaging presence, making points and posing questions in a provocative manner that suggests that a far-more-challenging debate might break out at any time. (She is also allowed the play's one moment of complexity, when she appears to accept the argument that, in order to save a loved one, most of us would probably condone torture; too bad the point isn't explored.) Many more characters arrive via voiceover, including a hand-wringing Laura Bush, a defiant Cheney (who offers to take their enemies hunting), and an oddly repentant Tony Blair. Even more characters appear via video projections, including the mother of a fallen soldier and several victims of torture, one or two of whom are actually quite moving.

But, most of the time, The Trial of an American President is devoted to laying out in detail facts that one already knows and levelling charges that have been explored extensively elsewhere; Tarlow is unwilling to allow for the ambiguity or clash of ideas that might create real drama. Little credence is given to the possibility that the trouble came from a combination of hubris and ineptitude, and not nearly enough attention is paid to the internecine squabbling among Bush's advisors, which may also have played a crucial role. Basically, it's a news bulletin delivered ten years late.

The only thing that keeps Stephen Eich's production watchable is its slick design. Ann Beyersdorfer's sleek, detail-free set serves as a screen for a cascade of projected images, by Kevan Loney, rounding up many of the worst moments of the last fifteen years or so, along with images of, in addition to those mentioned above, Bill Clinton, John Kerry, Jay Rockefeller, Chuck Hegel, Kofi Annan, John Bolton, and Richard Clarke, among others. Ben Green's lighting and Alex Dietz-Kest's sound are also solid. (There is no costume designer credited.)

There can be little question that Bush's presidency was a series of calamities, and historians will be debating for years to come exactly how they were allowed to unfold. The signal effect of The Trial of an American President is that, for the first time ever, it made me feel a little sympathy for George W. Bush: Even a really terrible president deserves a better play than this. --David Barbour

(7 October 2016)

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