Wednesday in the Dark With George

A theater review of the third presidential debate.

Published October 14, 2004 6:46PM (EDT)

As if being stoned to death with popcorn, ham actor George W. Bush struggles under the lightweight questioning of the Modern Aerator (cloyingly played by Bobblehead Schieffer) in this community theater production of "The Odd Couple: Bush Song Trilogy Meets Mass Appeal." The show, which opened and closed in Tempe, Arizona's Gammage Auditorium Wednesday evening, is slated to reopen as a one-man dinner theater production in Crawford, Texas, beginning in January 2005.

John Kerry will not be appearing, as he has previously committed to a four-year engagement in Washington, D.C.

But for those who witnessed this fascinating production, described by democritics and moderate republicists alike as "Deficit of a Salesman," the spectacle of the actor's art has never been more transparent.

Said one audience member, "It's as if, when Shakespeare wrote of a 'tale told by an idiot ... signifying nothing' he was foreshadowing the arrival of erroneous Bush. The man was a genius. You know, the English one."

But in this production, Bush too can lie, hack and think of England. Blinking, drooling and mugging his way in response to a query about vaccines, he outsources blame and then stuns the audience with the sudden revelation of a plan: "If you're healthy ... don't get a flu shot this year," he urges them. It's a plot twist ripped from "Deathtrap," as prior to that, no Bush healthcare plan was even thought to exist.

Then there's the improv. Asked "Who bears responsibility" for the current economy -- in which 39 million Americans live in poverty, 3 million unemployed are without federal benefits, 5 million have lost health insurance since 2000, and jobs are down 2.8 million -- Bush responds to a hushed audience with a line that defies one's conventional notions of the presidential: "Heh heh heh heh heh heh. Gosh, I sure hope it's not the administration."

For sheer creepiness, it crisply out-Walkens Christopher Walken careering crazily through a crisis. How does he do it? To quote the venerable Lovitz: Acting! It is the Master Jes' Bein' at his craft.

Into this surreal landscape comes John of Kerry, a mix of Atticus Finch and ancient Zen master. In his role as truth teller, Kerry has the less colorful but more demanding role. Even before the curtain had come down, the pundidiots in the front rows had forgotten his cool appraisal of healthcare in swing states, his national plan to remedy such ills, the reasoned soliloquy on whether 'tis nobler to sling the outrageously fortunate still more cashola when families are struggling to survive, his eloquent commentary on faith and the pitfalls of legislating from same.

Well, what do you expect when the mission statement of MSNBC seems to be "All the world's a stooge and all the men and women merely media players"? If only Kerry had broken a sweat, given a reality show whoop, or offered some other obvious signal, instead of just cleaning Bush's clock. So much for Kerry's chances of landing a sitcom.

Bush, on the other hand, looks good for a guest spot as the cousin "Joey" never talks about.

Still, every good bully deserves favor, at least in his own impaired judgment. Thus we have the memorable scene in which, no matter what anyone says, Bush responds by grinning with smirkish delight and chanting the words "No Child Left Behind." It's a jobs program. No, it's a healthcare program. Mysterious and spooky, it's altogether cooky, It's my sister! It's my daughter! It's my sister AND my daughter! Whew!

One would be remiss not to comment on the many special effects. Among the most astonishing -- you could literally hear jaws dropping like environmental standards -- is the scene where Bush blends the innocence of Eddie Haskell with the ethics of Tom DeLay to come up with the line, "Gosh, I just don't think I ever said I'm not worried about Osama bin Laden. It's kind of one of those exaggerations" -- even while a backdrop of CNN news footage shows some George W. Bush saying, "I don't know where he is. I -- I'll repeat what I said. I truly am not that concerned about him."

This is followed by a dream sequence in which Bush declares that the majority of his "tax cuts went to low- and middle-income Americans." Once the flames from the lightning bolt have died down, he performs a medley of song and dance tunes, including "Turnin' the Corner," "Freedom Is on the March," and "Can't Help Shovin' That Weapons Ban."

Meanwhile, back in Grown-up Land, Kerry soliloquizes that "The president has denied 9.2 million women $3,800 a year, but he doesn't hesitate to fight for $136,000 to a millionaire." And even Bush's love interest, Bob "Lobbin' Softballs" Schieffer, points out that "The gap between rich and poor is growing wider. More people are dropping into poverty." Bush's expression suggests he is pondering the far side of the Aristotelian dialectic. Can the closing scene from "Twelve Angry Men" be far behind?

But, soft, what radio wave through Bush's backpack breaks? He seems to be mouthing something ... about ... Uh-oh. There's a technical glitch -- he's stuck on Radio Station NCLB. It's the classic Actor's Nightmare.

"And therefore just kids were being shuffled through the school," Bush intones helplessly, his eyes darting stage right in search of the prompter with the script. "And guess who would get shuffled through? Children whose parents wouldn't speak English as a first language just move through."

Ah, good save. Expressing concern about somebody's command of the English language is straight out of the method acting handbook: Above all else, be authentic.

After that, "the George" is back in form, going up on his lines only one more time. But might not even the great Laurence Olivier himself have drawn a blank had he been challenged to recall the name of a close friend, especially one with such a complicated artistic name like Tom Lea?

In the end, it is left to a deus ex machina to rescue Bush's behind. In a moving monologue known as "The Barbecue Quartet," Bush tells how he first recognized who his future wife was first time he met her 'cause "there was only four of us there" and one of 'em was Laura, two of 'em was a buncha folks, and he can't 'member what happened to the fourth guy.

But it is up to Kerry to bring this production to its shocking conclusion. Not once, but three times, he declares a secret power utterly unknown to Bush: "Integrity, integrity, integrity."

And as the lights dim, and the last member of the audience departs, clutching a theater program in one hand and a chain-reinforced lockbox safeguarding an absentee ballot in the other, Bush is heard to whisper from the wings. "Damn. All this time, I thought the three most powerful words were 'Ask Karl.'"

By Joyce McGreevy

Joyce McGreevy is a writer in Portland, Ore.

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