Political satirists have long owed George Bush a debt of gratitude for his unique rhetorical flourishes, and perhaps “The Strangerer” is the most appropriate way to pay him back. Arranging the content of Albert Camus’ seminal novella “The Stranger” according to the structure of the 2004 presidential debates, Chicago’s director-free Theater Oobleck warps Bush’s malapropisms and mispronunciations into an absurdist, frequently hilarious tone poem, aided by a sleepy John Kerry and a troubled Jim Lehrer. Neither simple mockery nor earnest existentialism, the oddball play is a uniquely weird and enthralling cross-pollination of the two.
Bush’s stroke-victim cadence notwithstanding, it’s the pauses that offer some of the funniest moments in “The Strangerer.” When Lehrer (Colm O’Reilly) first enters, he carefully gathers his papers, surveys the room and sits. As he fidgets with his suit and blows his nose, nervous laughter starts to pop up like individual popcorn kernels in different corners of the room: Here is a guy who looks like he’s answered to “sport” and “ace” one too many times. A guy who graph paper and taupe paint would find boring. How can you not laugh?
This is the kind of observation “The Strangerer” becomes quiet enough to encourage. But there are also stabbings and shootings and attempted pillow smotherings, too.
It seems that Kerry (playwright Mickle Maher) and Bush (Guy Massey, an uncanny mimic) have come to an agreement: They will kill Jim Lehrer. Kerry is unwilling to articulate his reasons for attempting to murder a reporter (besides the obvious), and Bush seems unable, though he does give it a shot by recounting the experience of a play that moved him to a greater appreciation of drama. And what could be more dramatic than murder?
In answer to a question about the Iraq war, Bush begins to describe the death of his mother, and without warning, we’ve stepped out of the U. of Miami’s convocation center and into a strange wasteland that is part Coral Gables (where the 2004 debate took place) and part Algeria (where Camus’ story is set).
It’s a painfully arcane accusation: George Bush, apparently, doesn’t care about human life for the same reason that Camus’ Meursault didn’t care — the basic meaninglessness of existence.
This sort of intricate allusion would be really annoying if it wasn’t so funny. “It bloomered into me the thought that it didn’t matter if I, uh, murdered in some fashion the modulator of this debate,” Bush says, by way of Meursault’s realization that “you could either shoot or not shoot.”
Kerry springs to the attack with the half-assed zeal that characterized his campaign, but there are a couple of surprises: “Jim, the president is just flat wrong when he says that the killing of you is not a priority for me,” Maher drawls. “Do you sleep, Jim?” he asks Lehrer.
“No, I do not,” Lehrer replies.
It’s just that kind of off-balance absurdity that keeps the play from being an exercise in ridiculing the much-mocked president. Instead, it makes the impossible commonplace with a perfectly straight face, kicking into gear when Kerry reveals that he’s not exactly present. “I slept while driving us to the theater, I slept through most of the play, and I am, in fact, asleep now,” he explains, and then pauses. After a few seconds he starts to mumble dreamily.
It’s that space, between the declaration of the impossible and the display of it, that “The Strangerer” hangs onto and, ultimately, claims as its own. After so many crazy (and amusing) reversals, we’re utterly at sea when it comes to predicting what these lunatics, including the playwright, will do next.
In fact, that’s the crux of the piece. When Bush finally comes close to describing the moment that created his newfound philosophy, he illustrates it with that same weird silence.
“Here’s what it was,” says Bush, and then says nothing more.
“That’s 90 seconds, Mr. President,” says Lehrer after a while.
“It’s just one of my pauses,” explains Bush.