Peter Marks Theater Review: 'You're Welcome America'
Friday, February 6, 2009
NEW YORK -- Didn't we bid him adieu? It's odd timing, yanking an audience back into the presence of the old president just as the new one is getting settled in. And yet, from the first few minutes of "You're Welcome America: A Final Night With George W. Bush," Will Ferrell makes a pretty hilarious case for all of us having unfinished funny business with the drawlin', squintin', struttin' 43.
Mind you, not all the bits in Ferrell's bag of riffs hold on to freshness. Dick Cheney as dark puppet master feels like very old comedy news. And freed of the constraints on "Saturday Night Live," the actor resorts to some really juvenile sight gags, with one particularly gross-out moment getting stuck uncomfortably in the memory. (No, I won't give it away!)
But few who've scrambled for their tickets to the Cort Theatre, where the 90-minute show opened last night, are going to remember the intermittent waning of inspired satire, or the moments when "You're Welcome America" re-re-recycles patented standup material. What they'll take away is the gleeful adolescent spirit of Ferrell, enlarging on the swaggering frat-boy caricature he developed for television and which he now turns into a full-fledged comic character.
The show, which HBO plans to run as a live telecast next month, supposes Bush has been dropped -- literally -- on Broadway to, as Ferrell puts it, "celebrate my eight years of service to you." The underlying irony, of course, is that having left office with dismal poll numbers and the nation on the verge of economic surrender, he actually could be in the mood to celebrate.
Cluelessness is the satirical hook that Ferrell clings to as his Bush -- gazing at us in good-ol'-boy fashion, with arms bowed like a stiff-jointed gunslinger -- takes us down presidential memory lane. With the aid of overhead projections, and the appearance of one very sexy lady impersonating a close Bush adviser (whose name will not be divulged here), the president tries to get in the last word on everything, from the heck of a job Brownie did to "Mission Accomplished."
He's gracious enough, too, to acknowledge his successor. "I'm a fan of the Tiger Woods guy," Bush/Ferrell declares. "He's a great speechmaker. But tonight is about me."
Ferrell is not a professional mimic; in such movies as the deliciously anarchic "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" and "Blades of Glory," he's joyously unhinged, if often in the same intense way. His impression of Bush has never been a perfect physical re-creation, or as vocally vivid as, say, Dana Carvey's take on Bush's father. Ferrell's W. is more about attitude and carriage. Those attributes convey to the stage, where he remains in character for the entire time.
He's more satisfying as a George W. of the imagination than the flesh, and this might be why the very best sequences of "You're Welcome America" occur at some remove from the kinds of Bush behavior lampooned on Letterman and "The Daily Show." Yes, his Bush does have funny responses at the ready when a photograph of former transportation secretary Norman Mineta appears in a Cabinet-member retrospective. "I don't know who that guy is," Bush says. And the timing's right when he pays tribute to a coalition of the willing member, the Solomon Islands, "who joined the coalition without regard for the fact that they didn't have an army."
But Ferrell is better when reality begins to unravel: when the comic actor steers toward absurdism and the material goes a little, er, feral. In a segment of "You're Welcome America'' that takes us to the weekend ranch in Crawford, Tex., Ferrell purports to recount an outing on the property that Bush took with his father and brothers, which ended with them all trapped in an abandoned mine shaft.
When Bush's father learns that the son had given no forethought to the danger, had not considered making provisions in case things went wrong, the elder Bush -- in W.'s wounded telling -- unleashes a string of hilarious epithets. (There is, of course, a wonderful parallel hinted at here, in how some view the younger Bush's handling of larger crises.) The tirade ends with the father expressing what the nation has long wondered: "Why are you the only one in the family who speaks in a Texas accent?" And Ferrell adds to the story a brilliant, bizarre kicker, one that triggers one of the biggest laughs of the night.
The production, staged by "Anchorman" director Adam McKay, is not without need of tweaking. A point at which Ferrell's Bush suddenly turns somber over those who died in service to the country comes out of nowhere and stops the show cold. Crowded in on all sides by irreverence, the moment feels mistimed.
On the other hand, Ferrell proves to be a master of impromptu banter; in one of his concluding gambits, his Bush spontaneously confers nicknames on members of the audience. At my performance, the last of these was a man who called out that he was a Wall Street trader. Ferrell's sublime response created the illusion of a president a lot quicker on his feet than the comedian would ever have given him credit for.
You're Welcome America: A Final Night With George W. Bush, by Will Ferrell, directed by Adam McKay. Set, Eugene Lee; costumes, Tom Broecker; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound, Peter Fitzgerald; video design, Lisa Cuscuna and Chris Cronin; choreography, Matt Williams. With Michael Delaney and Adam Mucci. About 90 minutes. Through March 15 at Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St., New York. Visit http:/