One of the most unlikely heroes of All the President’s Men?, Nicolas Kent’s arresting and lean verbatim distillation of scenes from the Senate confirmation hearings of President Trump’s Cabinet, turned out to be Marco Rubio.
As brilliantly played by Raúl Esparza, with all Rubio’s jerky, off-kilter talking style and tortured body language, the piece illustrated how the junior Florida senator skewered now-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (a glowering, contained Alec Baldwin playing against swaggering Trump type).
Ultimately, Rubio supported Tillerson’s nomination—but for a moment during the hearings the public saw something spark into life—principle, anger—that rose above blind party allegiance.
As it was when performed in the U.K. last month, All the President’s Men? played as a one-night engagement in New York on Thursday night at Town Hall, evoking the nomination hearings of Tillerson, Tom Price (David Costabile) as HHS Secretary, Scott Pruitt (Aasif Mandvi) as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Jeff Sessions (Nathan Osgood) as attorney general.
The piece was staged by the U.K.’s National Theatre and New York’s Public Theater, whose artistic director Oskar Eustis took to the stage before the two-and-a-half-hour performance began to explain its gestation, and to say how he proud he was to stage it at Town Hall.
The theater was rooted in the battle for women’s suffrage, and built for wide and encompassing public debate and events, Eustis said; birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger had been arrested on stage here in 1921, he added, proudly name-checking the work of Planned Parenthood now threatened by the Trump administration.
Eustis emphasized this was not the full texts of the hearings; and that most of the questions posed during the play were from Democrat senators because—as the play’s editor and director Kent himself put it—“their role is one of trying to pose the sort of questions which elicit the most revealing answers—and the function of this play is to try and lay bare as much as possible the philosophy, character, and policy ideals of the new Trump administration.”
The audience was, no surprise, audibly anti-Trump, but they listened rapt to the intensely posed questions-and-answers. What was striking was how much felt new, and damning, even if you are bathed in politics and the 24-hour news cycle.
There were no soundbites here, no social-media outrage and snark, but rather a series of fascinating, detailed, charged interviews.
Here you saw, in their own words, how Tillerson, Price, Pruitt, and Sessions sought to dismiss any questions about conflicts of interest, ties to Russia, denial of climate change, and racial and gender prejudice, abortion and opposition to LGBT equality, with bland, folksy deflection.
The men knew they most likely had the votes to carry their nominations through, and though polite kept their answers as neutral as possible. It was up to the questioning senators to explore their outrageous past records and statements.
Playing Elizabeth Warren, the perfectly voiced and coiffed Ellen Burstyn delivered a stinging laceration of Price over his controversial holding of stocks—a delightful verbal roasting, even as Price wouldn’t accept he had committed any wrongdoing.
David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, turns out to be a natural actor and comedian too—and was excellent as the methodical yet deadly Al Franken.
As rubber-stamping Republicans, Ivan Hernandez as Ted Cruz and Denis O’Hare as Orrin J. Hatch lavished oily praise on their interviewees: They could be having drinks with buddies, and Hernandez in particular delivered a fire-and-brimstone denunciation of what he characterized as improper Democrat opposition.
The audience gasped at the laissez-faire responses that Tillerson and Co. gave to the committees they faced, with the grilling of well-prepared and indignant senators like Patty Murray (Linda Emond) and Chris Coons (David Costabile).
Pruitt, who had sued the EPA (the agency he now heads) 14 times while attorney general of Oklahoma, had nothing to say to Ron Rifkin’s quietly furious Bernie Sanders as he questioned Pruitt about his lack of care about Oklahoma’s propensity for earthquakes, which would be likely to increase if the amount the fracking the state allowed continued at the same rate as it was going.
The committees’ collective disbelief at the dissemblance they faced was matched by the sighs and hisses of the audience. When the audience laughed, which was often, it was at the blithe disregard for accountability the four men seemed to exhibit, and at the pointed attempts of the senators to reveal the nominees’ true selves, evasions, deceptions, and beliefs.
All four men emerged as slippery, untrustworthy, and utterly self-interested—and, most insultingly given the office they are charged with holding, as possessing a shocking lack of engagement with and respect for civic responsibility and the body politic.
Their evidence to the committees seemed to suggest they cared more about making money, sticking firm to ideology, and even firmer to President Trump above all else. Their lack of principle and lack of a sense of public duty were the most shocking, unspoken qualities they exhibited.
Sanders, for example, had had enough of Price fudging that everyone should “have access” to health care. “Has access to” does not mean that they are guaranteed health care,” Sanders shot back. “I have access to buying a $10 million home. I don’t have the money to do that.”
Occasionally, the action of the play was interrupted by demonstrators—as they did the hearings—shouting slogans denouncing Trump and fascism, “No KKK,” “Black Lives Matter,” and more at the nominees. They were applauded by the audience, even as their presence right at the beginning seemed all-too-real, as there were demonstrators outside the theatre handing out leaflets, reading “In the Name of Humanity, We REFUSE to Accept a Fascist America. Drive Out the Trump/Pence Regime.”
The urgency of the protesters, both at the confirmation hearings and outside on West 43rd Street on Thursday, is now evident in the anger of town halls around the country.
Since the confirmation hearings in January there have been a raft of executive orders, the Muslim travel ban, and now the firing of FBI Director James Comey. Political events and controversies come so thick and fast the confirmation hearings themselves may seem far away, but they are an important record.
The care in the writing and staging All the President’s Men?—in the answers and bearing of the nominees and the anger and questioning of the senators—shows the day-in, day-out tension of the Trump era, and the ideological shell around it.
The play ultimately interrogates the importance and impotence of accountability. It shows the coalescing of Trump’s cadre of poobahs, and their beliefs, or lack of them—depending on your point of view.
If it left many in New York disbelieving, depressed, and in some shock at the end—how fragile democracy seemed—it also offered some hope in giving the final speech of the evening to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Regina Taylor), ruminating on Sessions’ inappropriateness for the job of attorney general.
Feinstein’s wasn’t the party-political anger of a Democrat having to cede power to a Republican; it was the thrumming anger of someone perceiving that a terrible, corrosive power grab was underway, and with the appointment of Sessions, the necessary check and balances on a president’s power that an attorney general should provide were, for her, not present.
Hers was not just a damning indictment of Sessions, but also a damning indictment on how democracy and its institutions and functions can be attacked and compromised.
With Feinstein's final, measured evaluation of all that Sessions lacked as a public servant, the stage went black.