Michael O Smith in The Bully Pulpit
(© Rick Teller)
Michael O Smith in The Bully Pulpit
(© Rick Teller)
Teddy Roosevelt's orations on the campaign trail and elsewhere sounded so much like aggressive sermons, that some, including his second wife Edith, joked that he delivered his speeches from a "bully pulpit" -- which is why playwright-performer Michael O. Smith uses this expression as the title for The Bully Pulpit, his compellingly performed new one-man show at Theatre Row. But make no mistake about it, there's nothing at all bullying about this amiable, but unremarkable, play about our legendary 26th president.

Smith, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Roosevelt both physically and vocally, sets the work in the study (a wood-paneled marvel from scenic designer Charles Corcoran) of Roosevelt's home in Sagamore, New York. The former president is celebrating his 60th birthday and uses the day as one of reflection on his life. Unwisely, Smith has Roosevelt addressing a crowd that seems to have gathered in the room, and while this conceit establishes Roosevelt's good-natured, if hard-hitting, bonhomie, it also feels unnatural.

The conceit also means that the play falls prey to the "and then I did…" syndrome. After setting the scene and some introductory patter, we get a roughly chronological account of Roosevelt's life -- some of it quite fascinating, but rarely introspective. For instance, Smith never truly explores how growing up during the Civil War with a father from New York and a mother from Georgia affected his political policies, although he does share an amusing anecdote about how his five-year-old Northern smart-aleck sympathies resulted in a good thrashing from his father.

The public nature of Roosevelt's discourse also means that, more often than not, Pulpit affords us with few opportunities to actually experience the truly private side of the great man. A grand exception comes late in the play when he remembers telling his children a bedtime story in the White House; here it almost seems as if the President himself has become a little boy once again. It's a touching moment and one wishes that the show had a greater number of similar ones. Since as it stands, the piece feels more like a solid lesson in history and biography than great theater.