This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
There may be a Democratic President in the White House, but American audiences have plenty of opportunities these days to spend time with some unpopular Republicans from the recent past.
Should you want to hang out with the great decider, there’s Will Farrell’s Broadway debut, You’re Welcome America: A Final Night With George W. Bush; or if you wish to catch up with Richard Milhous Nixon, there’s Peter Morgan’s 2006 drama Frost/Nixon.
Now, You’re Welcome America closed on Broadway last week and Frost/Nixon is halfway through its short run at the Ahmanson Theatre…but if you don’t make it to the stage versions you can also reacquaint yourselves with these fictional presidents in much the same way that you got to know the real ones: on television in the comfort of your living room.
Most Angelenos know that the play Frost/Nixon was made into a big Ron Howard feature film, but this week HBO broadcast the final performance of Will Farrell’s You’re Welcome America. Not surprisingly, little is lost in the translation from stage to screen — as both these theater pieces feel as if they were conceived as TV programs first and stage plays second.
You’re Welcome America is simply a Saturday Night Live sketch expanded to 90 minutes. On stage, the show benefited from a live audience and Farrell’s natural charm — unlike many movie stars will little professional theater experience, Will Farrell was at ease on stage and the best part of the live show was his improved interaction with the crowd.
The HBO broadcast (which will be rerun through the end of month) makes the show more of a simple impersonation — the camera’s close up allows us to see Farrell’s subtle squinty facial ticks that accurately represent the awkward, deer-in-the-headlights persona of the 43rd President. On stage, and without close-ups, this lack of intimacy resulted in a show that seemed more about Will Farrell’s absurdist comedy than George Bush’s absurdist policies.
You’re Welcome America is not a satire of Bush’s regime, but simply a parody of him as person; this same focus on personality (at the expense of a deeper political perspective) can be also be said of Frost/Nixon.
Peter Morgan’s acclaimed play involves the machinations of journalist David Frost as he tries to “get” a big interview with Nixon, but the only real substance that the play deals with is the question: did Nixon ever fully realize that what he did was wrong?
It’s an interesting question, as Morgan’s smart and slick play makes clear, but he never really fleshes it out theatrically. On stage, in Michael Grandage’s video-heavy production, Frost and Nixon battle it out with large TV screens behind them — letting the on-camera close-ups do much of the dramatic heavy lifting.
Without this technology Morgan’s play would be little more than a solid radio play — a problem that Ron Howard couldn’t solve even with all the bells and whistles of a major Hollywood production.
What’s most interesting to me is that both Frost/Nixon and You’re Welcome America have been major hits on stage — and will no doubt be much watched in the video versions in years to come. This despite the fact that the real events of both these plays are easily viewed for free on YouTube — or for only a few dollars on archival DVD’s.
Leaders losing their crowns — and the way in which they lose them — have long been a source for great drama and even comedy. Perhaps in the future, playwrights will capture the full tumult of the Nixon and Bush years in the way that Shakespeare or Schiller chronicled the great European monarchs of centuries past. Until then, we have these diverting entertainments — which don’t seem destined for long legacies on stages, but rather for short lives on video shelves.
Frost/Nixon continues at the Ahmanson Theatre through March 29, Will Farrell’s You’re Welcome America runs on HBO through March 31.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.
Banner image: Carol Rosegg