Critic's Notebook: Alec Baldwin Tackles Rex Tillerson in One-Off Play

All the President's Men - The Public Theater and The National Theatre- Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of Joan Marcus

A superb cast including Alec Baldwin (not playing you know who) and Ellen Burstyn (playing Elizabeth Warren) appeared in this one-night-only staged reading of excerpts from Trump's cabinet confirmation hearings.

It’s not for nothing that the title of the new theater piece performed Thursday night at New York City’s Town Hall ends with a question mark. Composed entirely of excerpts from transcripts of the Trump cabinet confirmation hearings, All the President’s Men? played like a comedy … a very dark one.

A co-production of the Public Theater and London’s National Theatre — it was also performed for one night in April in London’s West End — the staged reading featured a gallery of acting talent including Ellen Burstyn, Raul Esparza, Linda Emond, Bill Irwin, Denis O’Hare, Aasif Mandvi and Ron Rifkin, among many others. Alec Baldwin, moonlighting from his recurring role as a certain U.S. president on Saturday Night Live, played Rex Tillerson, while New Yorker editor David Remnick appeared as Sen. Al Franken.

Anti-Trump protestors thronged the entrance, which seemed a bit redundant since it was a good bet than anyone attending this show was probably not a Trump supporter.

The Public’s artistic director Oskar Eustis kicked off the evening. He pointed out the significance of the piece being performed in a theater that was built nearly 100 years ago by an organization devoted to promoting women’s suffrage.

As for the play itself, “No words have been changed … this is not a spin or a satire,” explained Eustis. He went on to say that while the cast of the London version accurately reflected the real-life figures they were portraying, this production would feature a racially diverse ensemble.

The piece was composed of scenes featuring exchanges from the Senate nomination hearings for four of the most powerful of Trump's cabinet appointees: Rex Tillerson (Baldwin), Tom Price (David Costabile), Scott Pruitt (Mandvi) and Jeff Sessions (Nathan Osgood). All of the dialogue was verbatim, because, after all, you can’t make this stuff up. It was edited and staged by British director Nicolas Kent, and it seems ironic that the Brits are more effective in capturing our political zeitgeist than we are. The only major play about the Bush administration, for example, was Stuff Happens, written by David Hare and given its premiere at London’s National Theatre. It’s about time American playwrights started stepping up the pace.

Even political junkies were probably hard-pressed to follow all of the seemingly endless confirmation hearings earlier this year. This evening was thus a perfect, not to mention entertaining, way to get up to speed on the sheer ludicrousness of many of the proceedings. Among the myriad highlights: Tillerson repeatedly evoking his “longstanding involvement with the Boy Scouts of America,” dodging questions with diplomatic finesse (demonstrating that maybe he’s more qualified for the job than we thought) and assuring his questioners that he had Donald Trump’s cellphone number; Marco Rubio, hilariously captured in all his sputtering indignation by Esparza, desperately trying to get Tillerson to admit that Putin is a war criminal; Franken, after telling Price, “It was nice meeting you the other day,” slyly adding, “Did you enjoy meeting me?”; Sen. Edward J. Markey (Esparza), after finally getting Pruitt to admit that climate change isn’t a hoax, pointing out, “OK. That’s important for the president to hear”; Sessions introducing the extended members of his family as if he were on an episode of The Waltons; and Lindsey Graham, sounding like an amiable therapist, inquiring of Sessions, “Do you like the FBI?”

Despite reading from scripts, the actors delivered superbly polished, nuanced performances. Burstyn’s pitch-perfect Elizabeth Warren was priceless as she decimated Price over questionable stock trades. Rifkin garnered huge laughs with his blustery Bernie Sanders. Ivan Hernandez oozed smarm as a condescending Ted Cruz. O’Hare milked Orrin Hatch’s obsequiousness for all it was worth. And Regina Taylor superbly delivered Dianne Feinstein’s speech praising Sally Yates and citing Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus standing up to Nixon when they were ordered to fire the Watergate special prosecutor. (Despite its eerie timeliness in the wake of Trump firing FBI director James Comey, that last part was in the script already published in book form).

All the President’s Men? was political theater as entertaining as it was urgent. It felt like a genuine event, the atmosphere charged with the energy of the Resistance (not to mention the loud protestors who periodically interrupted the proceedings, all part of the show). The press release had cheekily included the information that every member of Congress and the principal figures in Trump’s administration were “notified of the production and encouraged to attend.” Sadly, their invitations seemed to have gotten lost in the mail.