Critic's Notebook: An All-Star Cast Turns the Mueller Report Into Absurdist Tragicomedy

Jenny Anderson

Annette Bening, Kevin Kline, John Lithgow, Gina Gershon, Michael Shannon, Krya Sedgwick and Jason Alexander are among the many stars who delivered a live-stream reading of the Mueller Report, adapted for the stage by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan.

The Mueller Report has been on the best-seller lists since it was released, but it's one of those books that few people get around to actually reading. It is, after all, an official document numbering hundreds of pages, much of its language consisting of dry legalese. Fortunately, playwright Robert Schenkkan has distilled the voluminous tome into its dramatic highlights for theatrical presentation, The Investigation: A Search for the Truth in Ten Acts. The piece, read by an all-star cast in a performance live-streamed from New York City's Riverside Church, reveals it to be a masterpiece of absurdist tragicomedy.

The venue was appropriate, since Riverside Church has long been known for its political and social activism. It was there that Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous speech condemning the Vietnam War. A similar sense of urgency accompanied this presentation, featuring such well-known performers as Annette Bening, Kevin Kline, John Lithgow, Michael Shannon, Gina Gershon, Jason Alexander, Alyssa Milano, Joel Grey, Kyra Sedgwick, Zachary Quinto and many others.

Schenkkan, a Pulitzer Prize winner for The Kentucky Cycle, is no stranger to political themes, having a won a 2014 Best Play Tony Award for his LBJ bio-drama All the Way, starring Bryan Cranston. For this piece he served more as editor than writer, contributing introductions to the different acts and some arch commentary, read by Bening, along the way. Otherwise, he let the report speak for itself.

It might have been appropriate if the actors had spoken in quiet monotones, the better to emulate Mueller's own stiff delivery when he finally deigned to offer some taciturn commentary to the press after the report's release. Kline, essentially channeling Mueller's brand of patrician restraint, did just that with his uninflected narration. That would have made for a rather dry evening, but fortunately Lithgow's Trump was there to pick up the entertainment slack.

The actor, who just finished playing another president, Bill Clinton, in the recently shuttered Broadway play Hillary and Clinton, tore into the role with unabashed gusto. He practically turned the evening into a one-man show, delivering such now-famous lines as "Oh my God, this is the end of my presidency! I'm f—ed!" — which Trump shouted upon hearing the news of Mueller's appointment as special counsel — as if he were King Lear raging on the heath. He delivered Trump's infamous quotes like a Borscht Belt comedian riffing through his best one-liners, and there was no shortage of material.  

Most of the actors didn't bear any particular resemblance to the people they were portraying. But there were some amusing exceptions, such as Jason Alexander, who got laughs the minute he started speaking as Chris Christie, and Joel Grey, who infused his Jeff Sessions with an elfin charm that almost made you feel sorry for the beleaguered attorney general. Grey and Sessions merged into one to such an uncanny degree that you expected the actor to start singing "Mr. Cellophane," his trademark number from the musical Chicago.  

Another comic highlight was Shannon's Don McGahn, not because the actor infused his readings with any particularly amusing spin, but rather because of the sheer lunacy of what he was saying. Whether complaining that the president had "asked him to do some crazy shit" or responding to Trump's angry query about why he was taking notes by telling him, "Because I'm a real lawyer," McGahn emerged as one of the few voices of relative sanity in a gonzo White House.

The piece, presented by the organization Law Works, concentrated on ten examples of Trump obstructing justice, from asking James Comey to shut down the Russia investigation, to ordering Sessions to "un-recuse" himself, to instructing McGahn to fire Mueller, to encouraging Michael Cohen to lie about the Moscow Trump Tower project and the hush money payments to Stormy Daniels.

What the excerpts from the report made amazingly clear was exactly how much of the damning evidence was based on Trump's own words, taken from press interviews and tweets. Richard Nixon was smart enough to keep his illegal thoughts private (but not smart enough to stop taping them). Trump, as his recent interview with George Stephanopoulos demonstrated, seems to have a perverse compulsion to bare his criminality for everyone to see.   

Toward the end of the 70-minute piece, Kline recited Mueller's apparently too subtle public comment, "If we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so." It was followed by the actors delivering an explication and brief history of impeachment, for which this evening was clearly a clarion call. It would be nice, but probably unrealistic, to think that it was truly heard.