Theater review: Catch this debate — The Strangerer

Think you couldn’t sit through one more political debate?

Think again.

The Strangerer is likely the most bizarre and hilarious one you’ll ever experience.

Catastrophic Theatre has mounted a letter-perfect Houston premiere of Chicago playwright Mickle Maher’s absurdist political satire. As inspired as it is strange, the play imagines the first 2004 debate between George W. Bush and John Kerry as it would play out under the influence of Albert Camus’ The Stranger and other works of the famed existentialist author-philosopher.

The concept was sparked by the news that The Stranger was on Bush’s 2006 summer reading list — a notion that (fairly or unfairly) many found startling.

With the world growing more surreal by the moment, it’s an achievement that The Strangerer makes the current political scene weirder than it is already. It’s certainly a pivotal achievement of Catastrophic’s fine rendition that Paul Locklear’s uncannily apt Dubya emerges as funnier than the genuine article.

The piece begins deceptively, virtually a documentary recreation of the actual event. Jim Lehrer (Sean Patrick Judge) seats himself at the moderator’s desk, counts down, introduces Kerry (Troy Schulze) and Bush, and explains the rules.

But as Kerry drones his answer to the first question, Bush pulls a knife from his lectern and rushes to plunge it into Leh-

rer’s back. Ominous music rises (as in a “Spaghetti Western” showdown), wind rushes and the lights fade to black.

Moments later, lights up. The unflappable Lehrer resumes his seat, explains that the attack was a staged murder, planned in advance, and the debate continues.

Yet Bush keeps interrupting with his attempts to kill Lehrer — shooting him, trying to smother him with a pillow, offering him a bourbon and cyanide. Lehrer apparently has not agreed to these follow-up attempts; he stops cooperating.

As the debate progresses, Bush unwinds his convoluted memory of the previous evening: how he and Kerry attended a performance of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, witnessed a perfect theatrical moment and agreed to create one at the debate by killing Lehrer.

Kerry insists he is just as intent upon killing Lehrer, but that it’s the wrong time and place. So the debate goes. No matter what Lehrer asks, each candidate justifies the killing but dithers over when and how it should be accomplished.

Of course, a senseless killing is the central event in The Stranger. There are other connections to its content and philosophy that there isn’t space to detail here.

For those who wish to find topical political commentary, the issue becomes a metaphor for the Iraq War. Bush delivers several speeches recounting disturbing images of decay and destruction. These passages add dark resonance and dramatic heft to anchor Maher’s bright jibes.

At the same time, The Strangerer offers a genuine reflection on the challenge of creating authentic theater — which, depending on your priorities, may register as profoundly as the play’s political and philosophical dimensions.

Jason Nodler’s astute, assertive direction crystallizes the play’s moods, whether enigmatic, ruminative or sharply satiric. He and his three actors work the script’s many levels without crossing into caricature.

Bush is the engine of the play, the role with the most brilliant material, and Locklear responds flawlessly.

Maher hands him inspired speeches, such as a tortured attempt to explain his thought-to-speech processes, which Locklear delivers perfectly. Then there is the slew of priceless malapropisms that sound real as those Bush actually has spoken. Among the play’s best: “decapulate,” “satisfiction” and “the Middle-Evil times.” Locklear gets the idiosyncrasies, mannerisms, even those long and desperate “What’s he trying to say?” pauses, which he times artfully.

Yet his portrayal is not a mockery. He acts an earnest, struggling human being — as Maher apparently intends, the existential hero of his own absurd saga.

Schulze’s Kerry projects that Kerryesque air of genial yet pretentious ineffectuality. Maher’s joke is that Kerry admits he is asleep most of the time and Schulze amusingly suggests that — especially when he actually dozes, eyes closed, mouth falling open, head lolling back.

Judge is likewise spot-on as Lehrer, from the cadences of his dutiful introduction to his placid and unflappable demeanor. He’s funny just sitting and listening intently, head cocked, seemingly so concerned yet at the same time oblivious.

Jodi Bobrovsky’s set creates a convincingly real debating arena, which Kirk Markley’s lighting periodically devolves into a surreal realm.

The Strangerer may be Theater of the Absurd — yet it’s also the funniest and most acutely meaningful example of the genre I’ve encountered in ages.