NEW YORK — With actors playing Rex Tillerson (Alec Baldwin), Elizabeth Warren (Ellen Burstyn), Marco Rubio (Raúl Esparza) and Bernie Sanders (Ron Rifkin), you could expect there to have been dramatic high points to the reenactments in Town Hall on Thursday night of the Senate hearings for President Trump’s Cabinet nominees. And yes, inevitably, funny moments, too.
“You are aware of my long-standing involvement in the Boy Scouts of America,” Baldwin’s Tillerson intoned, as an audience attuned to overly emphatic declarations of rectitude broke out in guffaws. Laughter erupted again, after Esparza’s Rubio, frustrated by secretary of state designee Tillerson’s refusal to acknowledge Russian President Vladimir Putin’s alleged connections to the murders of dissidents, retorted mockingly: “None of this is classified, Mr. Tillerson. These people are dead!”
The audience loved it, too, when, in the dramatization of the hearings for Tom Price to be health and human services secretary, an exasperated Burstyn — looking uncannily like the senator from Massachusetts — gave David Costabile’s Price a withering stare and remarked dryly, “These really are very simple questions.”
And so it went for nearly three hours at Town Hall, a nearly-100-year-old midtown Manhattan venue with a rich political history — it was built by suffragists — where this one-night-only event was staged by New York’s Public Theater and London’s National Theatre. Called “All the President’s Men?,” the production was a lively (if, of course, sometimes windy) verbatim presentation of excerpts from the confirmation hearings for four of the President’s Men: Tillerson; Price; Scott Pruitt, the nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency; and Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s choice for attorney general. (Non-spoiler alert: They were all approved.)
“I have tried to be impartial as far as possible in this editing process,” director Nicolas Kent wrote in the program. “The function of this play is to try to lay bare as much as possible the philosophy, character and policy ideals of the Trump administration.” In brief introductory remarks, Oskar Eustis, the Public’s artistic director, said the play was first presented in London in late April. He also talked about the aptness of reading a political work on the stage of Town Hall, the same stage on which birth-control activist Margaret Sanger was once arrested.
Sixteen actors and one magazine editor read the parts of the senators and nominees, with six other actors playing the protesters who intermittently interrupted the proceedings. (David Remnick of the New Yorker played Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota.) As Eustis noted, not all the casting choices were intended as strict physical impersonations: African American actors Regina Taylor and Joe Morton, for instance, read the roles of Dianne Feinstein of California and Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland. Bill Irwin, meanwhile, doubled as Bob Corker of Tennessee and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa; Denis O’Hare played Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina; Linda Emond was Patty Murray of Washington. Yul Vazquez took on Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and Ivan Hernandez played Ted Cruz of Texas.
The excerpted sessions, running between 30 and 45 minutes, acquired the approximate theatrical dimensions of one-act plays. As might be expected, the questions from the Democrats on the panels were almost always tougher (and sometimes drew applause), and the lavish plaudits aimed at the nominees by the Republicans prompted snickers. While Russia’s role in the presidential election came up frequently — with Trump’s erratic behavior a recurring subtext — perhaps the most interesting of the four segments concerned Price. It focused on the Democratic senators’ efforts to draw Price out on his investments in medical stocks and the conflicts there might have been in his having sponsored health-care legislation that bore impact on his stock portfolio.
As orchestrated by Kent, the portrayals were all smooth, ably laying out for the audience the tension, wit and banality of the committee hearings. Burstyn and Esparza stood out, but they may have been at a distinct advantage. The relentless Warren and the wired Rubio just turn out to be such juicy characters.