LOS ANGELES—The circular rug in President Barack Obama’s Oval Office bore the well known phrase of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” That piece of set décor in the world premiere production of Ray Richmond’s new play Transition grounds the action in this imagined recreation of the fateful meeting between President Obama and President-elect Donald J. Trump on November 10, 2016. We, the audience, are the proverbial fly on the wall.
The televised press conference that followed—showing both figures uneasily summarizing their hour and a half together with vague references to policy, advice, protocol and good wishes for a peaceful transition of presidential power—provided no substance as to what actually transpired.
Surely by now we have a good idea as to where that arc is bending now. And that rug? Probably rolled up, nestling in for a long retirement amongst some deep Smithsonian mothballs.
An aide ushers Trump (Harry S. Murphy) in, shortly followed by the president. Obama (Joshua Wolf Coleman) silently takes in the scene for longer than the usual beat, and admits, “I’m just embracing the surrealism of the moment.”
Transition plays on that surrealism to the hilt over the course of the next 90 minutes. The time spins out like an extended “Saturday Night Live” skit, each topic dutifully touched on and ticked off like bullets from an automatic weapon—Trump’s superficiality, lustfulness, class privilege, self-enrichment, predilection for junk food, philosophy of governance, love of chaos and conflict, disdain for facts, twittering innuendos against his enemies, penchant for revenge-taking, Russia, The Wall, immigration, healthcare, and more.
It’s hilarious, partly because we’re hit with all the familiar comforting tropes about the thoughtful, patient, no-drama president versus the boorish, tasteless ogre who pulled off a historic upset. The old saying tells us better to laugh than to cry, but surely we are all laughing between tears.
Was it Andy Borowitz who quipped that 300 million Americans are enrolled in Trump University now? In fact, on opening night, each person in the audience was presented with a President Trump University (“not affiliated with Trump U”) ballpoint pen. “The buck starts here!” the pen reads. “Please pay tuition in cash. Thank you for not filing suit.”
After more than an hour trying to interest the president-elect in some of the serious policy challenges that await him (he’s got more than a dozen folders on his desk to share with Trump), Obama is left with the sense of utter despair at the lower-than-the-deepest nadir to which the United States of America has sunk.
“Saturday Night Live” inevitably comes up more than once in the play. Trump and Obama both had made personal appearances on the show, but the thin-skinned president-elect cannot get over being satirized and begs Obama to use his influence on Lorne Michaels, creator of the show, to back off.
The amusement is non-stop and you’ll have a grand time laughing (through those tears) at the oaf. In rapid-fire succession Obama provides the set-up for each next bit of Trumpery. In the end, it’s hardly Shakespeare, although the elements of tragedy in this story would make for gripping theatre. The playwright, in a program note, explains that he intended to write not simply a spoof, but “a more measured analysis of a man/caricature whose every tweet and impulse seems today to dominate our lives.”
I am not convinced he succeeded at that. It’s really not a play at all, if what we mean is a work in which situation or character (or a deus ex machina) propels the action toward a different place from where the play began. This is a piece of fun for the moment that tickles our sympathies without a hint of challenge. Don’t expect much searching analysis of the Trump win, nor of the liberal assumptions that had Clinton pegged for victory up until election night.
Frustrated by the impossibility of reaching Trump on any policy level, or even of pursuing the “cordialities and niceties” expected at an occasion such as this, Obama does manage to lob a few choice zingers toward the president-elect. About Vladimir Putin, for example: “We both know what he has on you, Donald.” And Obama assures him that the GOP is using him as a Trojan horse to pass its long-cherished legislation: As soon as they’ve gotten what they wanted from the “useful idiot,” they’ll handily dump him.
Obama also compares the size of his hand to Trump’s (guess who wins that contest?).
I found Coleman convincing as Obama, although the role is skewed only to point up his strengths, and Murphy less in command of the unique Trump mannerisms. However, my theatre companion felt just the reverse, perhaps in part because we’ve gotten so used to Obama’s string-bean physique, and Coleman does not have that. Lee Costello directs efficiently and effectively.
Transition plays at the Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles 90038, through April 16. Show times are Fri. and Sat. at 8 pm, and Sun. at 3 pm. The theatre is dark March 31, April 1 and 2. For reservations and further info call (323) 960.4418, or go to www.Plays411.com/transition.