Presidents are people too, some more than others. It’s one of Bill Clinton’s strengths, and also an undeniable flaw, that he’s so unmistakably human. In Rick Cleveland’s wily, waggish monologue about his fleeting friendship with the former president, Clinton comes off as he so often does, as a rascally bon vivant who just can’t control his appetite for life, and for trouble.
Cleveland, a writer for “The West Wing” and “Six Feet Under,” met President Clinton when the staff of NBC’s political skein was invited for a tour of the White House. Cleveland spontaneously provided some needed obedience training for Clinton’s dog Buddy, who apparently — hold the presses — had a habit of “piddling” on a rug with the presidential seal.
A note of thanks arrived, followed months later by a phone call inviting Cleveland and his dog to join Clinton and Buddy for a beach outing. This is followed by a series of other encounters, including a jam session in Arkansas, an indulgent trip to Amsterdam and a culminating scolding from Mrs. Clinton.
There is something relentlessly funny about everyday people dealing with presidents, and about presidents talking about a dog’s urination issues.
In a piece that lasts a little more than an hour, Cleveland wrings plenty of humor from this subject, but he also manages to provide a pretty convincing glance at a man whose fame and power limit his ability to be fully himself.
In Spalding Gray style (the piece is in part dedicated to Gray, who committed suicide last year), Cleveland sits behind a desk to tell his tale. A picture frame on the desk and projected words on the wall behind him are the only visuals. It’s all very straightforward and polished, helped immensely by the intimacy of the Geffen’s elegant new small space, named after Audrey Skirball Kenis.
Cleveland’s prose is pretty delightful, and he delivers his monologue with a deadpan constancy that’s not exactly enchanting but works. He doesn’t really do an impression of the former president, which is part artistic choice and part simple necessity.
He’s also coy about how true his tale is. While none of it stretches believability, keeping us guessing is probably a pretty useful device; otherwise, this F.O.B. (friend of Bill) might find his revelations the subject of talkshows during Hillary’s seemingly inevitable presidential campaign.
Easy to watch and undeniably enjoyable, “My Buddy Bill” would benefit greatly from a greater willingness on Cleveland’s part to reveal more about himself. While his buddy Bill comes off as a three-dimensional figure in the story, the author remains just a bit too much of a cipher, hidden behind Clinton’s imposing presence.
It’s clear what Cleveland saw in Clinton; it’s not made equally apparent what Clinton saw in him.