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American Blues Theater’s ‘Five Presidents’ imagines what went on in real life at Nixon’s funeral

There’s the mild frisson of seeing these august commanders-in-chief cursing, drinking and voicing petty beefs. But Rick Cleveland’s play doesn’t ultimately reveal much human truth.

Martin L’Herault (from left, as Jimmy Carter), Tom McElroy (Gerald Ford), John Carter Brown (George. H. W. Bush) and James Leaming (Ronald Reagan) in “5 Presidents” by American Blues Theater at Stage 773.
Martin L’Herault (from left, as Jimmy Carter), Tom McElroy (Gerald Ford), John Carter Brown (George. H. W. Bush) and James Leaming (Ronald Reagan) in “5 Presidents” by American Blues Theater at Stage 773.
Michael Brosilow

It’s one of the ultimate fly-on-the-wall fantasies: to listen in on the conversation of five American presidents gathered in private, away from cameras, reporters, Secret Service details, even their wives.

When a club this exclusive gathers for a rare meeting, what do its members talk about?

That’s the premise of Rick Cleveland’s “Five Presidents.” It takes the real-life occasion of the 1994 funeral of Richard Nixon and imagines the interactions of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and “the new kid,” Bill Clinton, as they wait for the service to begin.

The playwright imagines this rarefied brotherhood has developed its own etiquette for such get-togethers — which Cleveland then has his subjects repeatedly breach.

Bush (John Carter Brown), in attendance for the first time as an ex-president, asks Ford (Tom McElroy) and Carter (Martin L’Herault) for tips on how to behave.

But Clinton (Stephen Spencer) breaches decorum by talking shop — and approval ratings — which opens the door for the others to air their grievances.

Ford — still smarting two decades later that his pardon of Nixon overshadowed his long career — decides he doesn’t want to deliver a eulogy after all. His successors try to change his mind.

The group must parry Reagan (James Leaming) when he volunteers because Nancy Reagan had asked Bush to make sure Reagan doesn’t speak, as signs of his Alzheimer’s disease are increasing.

In terms of plotting, that’s about all there is. There’s not much Cleveland could do to manufacture suspense. We’re well aware of what’s happened to all of these intensely public figures since the moment portrayed here.

Many of Cleveland’s cleverest flourishes rely on our knowledge, in fact, with allusions to Clinton’s future intern problem, Hillary Clinton’s ambition and Bush 41’s worry that his eldest son, then running to unseat Texas Gov. Ann Richards, hadn’t shown much aptitude in business.

“Five Presidents” was first produced at Milwaukee Rep in early 2015. Cleveland has revised the script for this Chicago premiere by American Blues Theater, where the playwright is a founding ensemble member.

It’s hard to avoid the sense that some of Cleveland’s sharpest commentary is aimed at the current occupant of the Oval Office.

Stephen Spencer (from left), Martin L’Herault, Tom McElroy and Denzel Tsopnang star in American Blues Theater’s “5 Presidents.”
Stephen Spencer (from left), Martin L’Herault, Tom McElroy and Denzel Tsopnang star in American Blues Theater’s “5 Presidents.”
Michael Brosilow

These five presidents expend a great deal of breath on the work all had to put in to restore the American people’s trust in the presidency after Nixon’s paranoid and corrupt tenure.

And when the ex-presidents aren’t sniping at one another, there’s much talk about the sanctity of the role. At one point, Clinton patches over a testy exchange with Bush by quoting, from memory, the letter that Bush famously left for Clinton on the Resolute Desk, including the line that “you will be our President when you read this note.” (Bush underlined the “our” in his handwritten note, but its deployment in this play feels intended to underline how much more starkly the country’s political divide is today.)

Cleveland’s political junkie bona fides are strong. He’s been a staff writer for “The West Wing” (sharing an Emmy Award with creator Aaron Sorkin for the season one episode “In Excelsis Deo”) and “House of Cards.” He’s written and performed two solo shows about his (fictional) friendships with Clinton and George W. Bush.

His goal here seems to be to humanize his subjects. And director Marty Higginbotham and his fine cast assist admirably. The actors subtly suggest their real-life counterparts — Spencer is especially good at invoking Clinton’s ingratiating drawl — without resorting to “SNL”-style impersonations (which Cleveland imagines his characters complaining about).

But despite the mild frisson of seeing these august commanders-in-chief cursing and drinking and voicing petty beefs, Cleveland’s thought experiment doesn’t ultimately reveal much human truth. His anti-dynamic script has these powerful men reciting their own greatest hits and misses so predictably they might as well be reading their Wikipedia entries.

Nowhere is the flatness of Cleveland’s viewpoint more clear than in his sixth character, an African American Secret Service agent. Played by Denzel Tsopnang, Agent Kirby exists so he can be asked by the five white presidents whether he believes he’ll see a black president in his lifetime. Kirby responds with a Sorkinesque speech about all the other things his interlocutors could have asked about the deeply embedded legacy of racism in America.

He’s calling them out for expecting him to speak for all of black America. But he’s still a token, a mouthpiece for what Cleveland imagines a black man in 1994 might have thought.

One of the presidents suggests that no one who hasn’t held their office can imagine what it’s like to make life-or-death decisions in the middle of the night. That also means Cleveland’s well-informed imagination is no more accurate than our own.

Kris Vire is a freelance writer.