In the first 10 minutes of Theater Oobleck’s new production, The Strangerer, George W. Bush makes three attempts on Jim Lehrer’s life. The play, a Camus-infused adaptation of the first 2004 presidential debate, juggles literary allusions, political analysis, meta-criticism of the theater experience, and mock-assassination attempts to keep the audience on its toes. Unfortunately, the issue that dominated the crowd’s attention for most of the eclectic performance was how a script with so many sources to pull from could manage to create such empty, free-floating, and incomprehensible characters.
The multiplicity of sources informing the production may in fact have been its downfall. Playwright Mickle Maher, who also plays Senator John Kerry, can’t seem to decide whether he wants The Strangerer to be a political spoof or a retelling of The Stranger. As a result, the production vacillates between the two, producing a disorienting effect.
Throughout the play, Lehrer asks the candidates the same foreign policy questions posed in the real 2004 debate. However, the candidates give him only absurdist responses relating to a play they saw together the night before. Bush, who firmly establishes the platform of being “a lover of the theater,” searches for one perfect moment to cause Lehrer’s staged or actual death, which he believes will delight the audience of the debate as much as he enjoyed the previous night’s performance.
Bush’s homicidal urges cannot be explained either within the context of the play or through parallels to Camus’s novel. Unlike Camus’s protagonist Mersault, Bush doggedly seeks out the ideal moment to kill for the dubious motive of theatricality. Many allusions emerge—Bush’s talk of keeping vigil over his dead mother’s coffin and Kerry’s constant praise of sleep come straight from Camus’s text. However, any substantial, intriguing element from Camus, like Mersault’s indifference to his mother’s death, falls flat in Maher’s interpretation because it can easily be written off as just another bizarre occurrence.
While the baffling plot often lost the audience’s attention, occasional glimpses of humor momentarily gained it back. Lehrer, played by Colm O’Reilly, delivers lines like “I don’t want to drink bourbon and cyanide” in show-stealing deadpan. Maher himself uses Kerry’s typically aristocratic speaking style to great comedic effect, at one point promising Lehrer, “When we kill you, we will do so with an apparent sense of purpose.” The simultaneous reference to Bush’s blundering in Iraq was lost on no one.
It was the Bush character, played by Guy Massey, that nearly dragged the show to a halt. His dialogue tries to follow a model similar to the unfunny, self-important musings of Steve Carrell’s character in The Office. This method could have worked if Bush hadn’t consistently droned on past his preset two-minute response time, giving stream-of-consciousness monologues like a brain-damaged Beat poet. Like the play itself, Bush suffers from an acute identity crisis. Maher tries to play him off as both a tragic hero and an incoherent idiot. Sadly, when the plot makes so little sense, the latter wins by default.
Like Lehrer’s and Kerry’s, Bush’s words are a studied mixture of debate transcripts and absurdism, exemplified in lines like “It’s hard work trying to kill Jim Lehrer, I understand that.” His speech is peppered with invented Bushisms like “blossomering,” “dramatical,” and “satisfiction.” These minor jokes might have elicited at least some nervous laughter from an awake, alert audience if Bush’s speeches were about a third as long. As it played out, however, the crowd barely flinched when Bush spoke of “the middle-evil times” or confused “proximity” with “promiscuity.”
Ironically, Kerry denounces boring theater in one of his final responses. “Of the theater’s purported values, its power to produce slumber is the only one we can be sure of.” If this is Maher’s acknowledgment at the soporific effect of his own play, he should have saved his wit for creating, not evaluating his production.