The Trial of an American President
Off-Broadway audiences engage in a fantasy prosecution of George W. Bush.
George W. Bush will remain a free man until his final day. This statement is certain to irk a sizable contingent of American liberals who would love nothing more than to see Bush and crew behind bars for their campaign of mass deception in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Dick Tarlow is offering them an outlet for their frustration in his new off-Broadway play at Theatre Row, The Trial of an American President, which imagines Bush facing off with an international prosecutor over his alleged war crimes. It's a rather sleepy exercise in self-righteous indignation masquerading as an honest examination of one of America's greatest foreign-policy blunders. Even if you despise Bush, you're not likely to get much satisfaction from this rambling stroll down memory lane.
While the United States is not a party to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Tarlow asks us to imagine a scenario in which George W. Bush (Tony Carlin) would abandon a quiet retirement painting nude self-portraits in order to travel to the Netherlands and defend his family honor. For three days, Bush submits to occasional questioning (but far more lecturing) from an ICC prosecutor (an authoritative Michael Rogers). The prosecutor squanders his first day by reading things various American politicians said about Bush on TV, but since the president is defending himself, there is no one to object to this hearsay. The subsequent two days involve tearful testimony from Iraqis who suffered under the American occupation: "Thank you SO MUCH for saving our country," a sarcastic lady in a hijab says to the former president in her video testimony. Members of the audience are selected for jury duty and get to vote to acquit or convict the ex-president at the end of the play.
Between scenes, a pseudo-Brechtian narrator (Mahira Kakkar) comes on to bludgeon us with big ideas using Tarlow's own markedly redundant diction. "The world simply could no longer ignore the effect that the invasion in 2003 had on the world and how it opened the door for the rise of ISIS," she breathlessly informs us in the prologue. "TODAY, ISIS is growing stronger every damn day." This, of course, is patently untrue.
Laden with disembodied voices (recorded actors far outnumber live ones) and video montages (at one point the logos of major American oil companies flash over images of dying Iraqi children), The Trial of an American President often feels like it would rather be a film than a play. This is somewhat understandable considering it is the debut playwriting effort of a former advertising executive. While Tarlow has earned a fortune from his wildly successful campaigns for Ralph Lauren and Revlon, he is less convincing in selling the case against President Bush — at least to those not already certain of his guilt.
And therein lies the problem with this suspenseless spectacle: With a script so heavily weighted against Bush and an audience predisposed to abhor him, there is never any doubt that Bush will be convicted by a wide margin (it was 15-4 at my performance). The entire 75-minute affair is more a liberal revenge fantasy than a genuinely gripping courtroom drama. Those who arrive expecting a Bushwhacked variation on Twelve Angry Men will be disappointed.
This is despite a strong performance from Carlin: Although he looks nothing like Bush, he has mastered W's accent and cadence. We truly believe him when he tells us he thought he was doing the right thing, even though his sincerity is habitually undermined by the script: "As if these proceedings aren't torture enough," he lamely jokes as we begin the passage on Abu Ghraib. His habit of deferring to God on all important decisions certainly does little to help us understand his perspective.
Stephen Eich directs a technically proficient production that occasionally verges on camp. With dramatic jump cuts and Hans Zimmer-esque underscoring, video producer Philip Coccioletti appears to have created an extended trailer for an Iraq-themed action flick. Kevan Loney's projections are well-executed, but it's hard not to laugh when the giant grinning face of Laura Bush appears above the stage like Mufasa, urging George to come home.
Undoubtedly, there will be New Yorkers who show up to The Trial of an American President looking to jeer at the villainous ex-president. They will wonder just how this man has gotten away with it all. But considering the precarious state of the world today, I was left with a different question: When does an obsessive focus on the car crash in the rearview mirror blind you to the dangers on the road ahead?