BWW Review: JIM LEHRER AND THE THEATER AND ITS DOUBLE AND JIM LEHRER’S DOUBLE – Double the Jims, Double the Fun
Jim Lehrer is retired. Jim Lehrer is bored. Jim Lehrer is lonely. We find the legendary news anchor, noted author, and former presidential debate moderator, in “the small sitting room just off the foyer of the entrance to [his] suburban home” in Washington, DC. Lehrer is there a lot, you see. His current evening routine consists of reading the news, and then reporting it aloud to himself. Lehrer does this out of habit – it’s the way he passes his time. Suddenly, a very exciting break in his normal evening routine arises when a neighborhood pollster rings his doorbell, and requests that he complete a political survey.
Lehrer is immediately at odds with the situation. Granted, it’s an “exciting break from [his] routine,” however it also presents the stoically-objective, non-partisan, strictly-factual newsman of 52 years with political questions that he has never before allowed himself to consider, such as ‘what do you think?’
In 52 years as a journalist, Lehrer has “never considered having an opinion.” Seriously.
As one does, when faced with a monumental challenge such as considering the value of their own thoughts for the first time in their adult life, Lehrer goes to the kitchen to get a snack. That’s when we meet Jim Lehrer’s double (Lehrer II), the aspiring playwright, returning home from the opening night of his first mounted production. Unlike Lehrer I’s countless career accomplishments, Lehrer II’s first play was a total disaster. And I don’t mean a poorly-reviewed-show-closes-soon disaster, I mean that his play drove-his-audience-to-become-rabid-and-form-a-mob-determined-to-kill-Lehrer-II kind of disaster.
As Lehrer II’s “panic accumulates mass,” he desperately tries to convince his twin that they are in real danger. Lehrer I struggles at first to remember that he has a double with whom he lives, “I don’t remember there being another JIM LEHRER and I don’t remember being forgetful,” and later is forced to confront the idea that he has lost “the who of [him]self.”
Believe it or not, JIM LEHRER AND THE THEATER AND ITS DOUBLE AND JIM LEHRER’S DOUBLE is a comedy. A dark, fantastic, farcical, absurdist comedy about who we really are when the trappings of a career fall away, and your “one companion is loneliness.”
The Catastrophic Theatre is currently celebrating their 10-year love affair with playwright Mickle Maher. I get it. Maher’s productions are among the most compelling, bold and unusual work performed in Houston in recent years. Though very different from one another, Maher’s pieces tend to intertwine famous literary works and themes with unusual, farcical circumstances. Every work I’ve seen to date is darkly hilarious, perplexing, and (although frequently featuring a multitude of dire circumstances) somehow heartening. I always leave a Maher play feeling a bit startled; I can’t imagine a higher compliment for Maher’s work.
This production of JIM LEHRER AND THE THEATER AND ITS DOUBLE AND JIM LEHRER’S DOUBLE is a masterpiece. Director Greg Dean honors Maher’s Edgar Allan Poe and Antonin Artaud influenced script by rejecting all forms of restraint and complacency. Dean intentionally disrupts the conventional relationship between actors and audiences with specific music and lighting cues, a sparse set, and minimalist props. Nothing is overdone; every action is specific and intentional so that the story, and the actor’s words and gestures, can be most evocative. Dean presents the audience with truths in a confrontational manner that isn’t always easy to digest. In other words, this isn’t a comfortable play to watch. (I have never met a beat so long, so awkward, or as hilarious, as in this play.) By skillfully managing the focus of his audience through shock and laughter, viewers consider themselves in the absurd contexts presented on the stage. The result is deeply powerful.
JIM LEHRER AND THE THEATER AND ITS DOUBLE AND JIM LEHRER’S DOUBLE is loosely considered a sequel to Maher’s THE STRANGERER (also currently in repertoire at The Catastrophic Theatre). Both shows feature the character of Jim Lehrer, played by Seán Patrick Judge. His performance in THE STRANGERER is dead on, but in this show, as Lehrer I, Judge is incomparable. He nails Lehrer’s nearly dead-pan voice and robotic demeanor so exactingly, that I couldn’t help but wonder if they share a familial relation. Judge’s intentions are clear, and his Lehrer is a fully formed human, albeit a super weird one. It is a thrill to watch his character seek his own truth, and it is a wonder to watch an actor so committed to his role. Judge’s steadfast intensity best reminded me of Benjamin Walker‘s Tony Award worthy performance as Patrick Bateman in 2016’s AMERICAN PSYCHO. That’s where the similarities between the two actors and characters start and end, but that woeful, haunting gaze remains with me to this day. This is a performance of a lifetime for Judge; you must see him in this part.
John Dunn shines as Jim Lehrer II. Cast as Judge’s double, Dunn’s character is presented in stark contrast to his successful brother. Lehrer II is utterly relatable, acting as we all would, if presented with similar circumstances. This Lehrer speaks openly, without first considering his words, as is the habit of the perpetually camera-ready Lehrer I. In the midst of a terrifying situation, Dunn acts as the production’s defibrillator, letting vulnerability and self-awareness into the room. While he is referred to as the ‘evil twin’ of Lehrer I, Dunn’s Lehrer II is in many ways more likeable, providing one-sided empathy to Lehrer I, and easily showing emotion and care. And yet, both Dunn and Judge are at times, nearly interchangeable. Their voices are similar in pitch and cadence, and their mannerisms are equally intense. To pull this off, Dunn and Judge must have spent weeks first imitating Lehrer, and then each other.
I have only two regrets regarding this fantastic production: that I wasn’t able to see it until toward the end of its run, and that I definitely did my crazy-cackle-laugh throughout a performance that The Catastrophic Theatre was recording. Forgive me!
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: The Catastrophic Theatre continues to amaze with their devotion to presenting work that makes you think and feel. JIM LEHRER AND THE THEATER AND ITS DOUBLE AND JIM LEHRER’S DOUBLE isn’t a show for everyone. Keep the kids at home. But for audiences seeking something out of the ordinary, for those who welcome challenging art, and for folks who want a really big laugh, buy a ticket today.