It’s not the subtlest play in town, but “The Bully Pulpit” does its job. Much like “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!,” Samuel Gallu’s 1975 one-hander about Harry Truman, this solo show nostalgically casts Theodore Roosevelt as a gruff, straight-shooting hero with a cowboy’s backbone. Auds seeking assurances that American politics used to be ethical should be painlessly entertained.
Writer-performer Michael O. Smith has been touring the show through the regional circuit since 2004, when it preemed at Florida’s Studio Theater, and to his credit, he has created a viable crowd-pleaser that showcases his acting chops. Smith disappears into Roosevelt, making him a jovial good ol’ boy with a charming repertoire of snorts, hand gestures and period slang. Speaking to us from his New York country home in October 1918 — on his 60th birthday — the former trust-busting president is a likable, confident blowhard who knows how to work a room.
And he certainly has great stories. Smith finds the narrative hook in historical facts, so that everything from Roosevelt’s marriage to his creation of the national park system becomes compelling. He also asks the audience to recite obvious facts — “Speak softly and carry a big…? Can you tell me?” — which allows for playful banter and keeps the piece from becoming a book report with sound cues.
Often, Smith offers presidential opinions that speak directly to our time. By quoting Roosevelt’s speech about “hyphenated Americanism” — at the time, he meant German-Americans and Irish-Americans — the scribe invites debate over our current understanding of national identity. In his speech, Roosevelt argues that hyphenated Americans weaken the nation and belittle themselves, and we are implicitly asked if we agree.
But the light touch doesn’t last. Production’s ultimate descent into blunt sentiment cheapens its entertainment value. For instance, a throughline about Roosevelt’s beloved son Quentin is both maudlin and cliche. Early on, we learn that all four of his boys are enlisted to fight in WWI, but every time he mentions Quentin, he chokes up. It’s obvious he will eventually confess the boy is dead and then wail with grief.
The revelation arrives on schedule, and it plays like a writer’s trick. Honest emotion comes earlier, when Roosevelt recalls the death of his mother and his first wife on the same day, in the same house. That story isn’t obviously planted to make us weep, so it strikes a deeper blow. And Smith’s matter-of-fact sadness, as opposed to his later hysterics, only ups the emotional authenticity.
Mawkish patriotism dominates the final scene, when Roosevelt asks if our descendants will know what America means to us. Though it might earn jingoistic applause, this rhetoric narrows the scope of the show. Instead of letting us ponder Roosevelt’s legacy, it tells us exactly what to make of it.