Surrealism Takes the Presidential Debate Stage in The Strangerer

NATALIE DE LA GARZA | MAY 18, 2018 | 9:32AM

If you don’t remember the first presidential debate between George W. Bush and John Kerry, it’s worth a quick trip to Google if only to see Bush’s often visible annoyance with his Democratic challenger. It’s those scowls and sighs that have made that debate one of the more recent addition to those “memorable debate moments” lists, right up there with Nixon sweating and Lloyd Bentsen’s “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

And Mickle Maher uses this same Bush-Kerry debate as the basis for his 2008 one-act play, The Strangerer – if, you know, the debate was broadcast from The Twilight Zone instead of Coral Gables and informed by the absurd and existential stylings of Albert Camus.

If Camus seems like a surprising choice, think back to ’06, when The Stranger appeared on the president’s summer reading list. Though Camus’s other works are present in the play, including The Fall, The Plague and a reference to “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Bush is definitely the Meursault of this piece, which starts exactly like the first debate did 14 years ago.

PBS newsman and 12-time debate moderator Jim Lehrer (Seán Patrick Judge) begins with an explanation of the debate’s format and then brings the candidates on stage. He asks the first question, whether Senator Kerry (Troy Schulze) believes he can do a better job preventing another 9/11-type terrorist attack in the Unied States, and as Kerry begins his answer, President Bush (Paul Locklear) advances on Lehrer, lets out a war cry and stabs him in the back, savoring the moment as music plays and the lights go down. When the lights come back up, Lehrer is back in his seat and the debate continues. You see, Kerry and Bush, two men on opposite sides of the political aisle and vying for the same job (highest office in the land), have finally agreed on one thing: Jim Lehrer must die in a senseless act of violence. On manner and method they can’t, however, find common ground.

It’s the first, but certainly not the last, attempt that Bush makes on Lehrer’s life during 90-minute proceedings that veer far from Lehrer’s prepared questions, to subjects like the deaths of innocent people, Edward Albee, the “carnage city” outside the University of Miami Convocation Center, Balinese rituals, inner versus outer lives, and much more.

Director Charlie Scott is running a tight ship with this production, and it is particularly noticeable with Shawn W. St. John’s spot-on sound design and Hudson Davis’s lighting, which turn Greg Dean’s faithfully recreated set of a presidential debate — with a desk, two lecterns, bright red carpet — from commonplace to ominous in the space of one light or music cue.

The show’s biggest potential weakness — long, roadblocky monologues stopping the play from gaining any momentum — is minimized under Scott’s deft hand and the performances he’s able to manage from his cast, all old vets to this show as all three return from Catastrophic’s successful 2008 run of The Strangerer.

Locklear is responsible for many of the previously mentioned monologues and they give him countless opportunities to show his agility at playing George W. Bush, his Dubya a surprisingly grounded exaggeration that never delves into caricature. The accent and cadence are there, as are his mannerisms; he’s shifty, he’s mastered the Bush squint and laugh, and even slouches and grips the lectern like the real thing. He’s aggressive and threatening, a performance aided by Tamarie Cooper’s costume design (the too-big suit making him appear smaller and more childlike, which unexpectedly heightens the danger he poses). Bush, as written by Maher, has some trouble expressing himself due to his “difficulties” and, in fact, his dialogue is peppered with so many malapropisms that Leo Gorcey would blush.

Judge’s Lehrer is an avid knife collector and consummate professional who enters as the audience is still making small talk, dutifully reading over his notes and centering his mike. A self-described “seasoned, even-handed member of the press,” he’s unflappable to the point of oblivious, and Judge plays the role well and, like his cast mates, completely straight.

Schulze has what is seemingly the most thankless role, but he does get the last word. His Kerry is stiff and condescending, and present mostly to firmly disagree with Bush and deny he is a resident of dreamland. Though his very funny portrayal of a man sleeping on his feet would argue otherwise.

The characters more than anything are vessels to explore some heavy themes pulled from classic literature and dropped in the middle of a presidential debate. Unexpectedly, they fit well. You won’t forget that Maher’s playing with a very particular philosophy as you’re watching the show, but it’s silly playfulness keeps it from being unpleasant or heavy-handed. It also makes The Strangerer unlike anything else and yet another home run for Catastrophic.