Stop killing us! Stop killing us!” Should you happen to miss either the agit or the prop in Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s insipid play Pass Over (at the August Wilson Theatre through October 10), Nwandu arranges to have her characters assert, re-assert, and on occasion even shout out her themes, which amount to brazen misinformation in the form of theater. Directed by Danya Taymor, Pass Over is the first play either to open or re-open on Broadway since the pandemic began, and to the extent it indicates theater has become a sort of beach ball being batted around by a mindless mob like the ones that rampaged across the country in the summer of 2020, it seems to herald a tiresome season. Of course the play is being hailed as a masterpiece. How could circumstances be otherwise? The principal goal of the critical profession is to protect its own employability by begging for favor from the mob. If a play by a black artist should be deemed to sharply rebuke racism, no matter how blunt, strident, didactic, dull, and conceptually erroneous it may be, few critics who would like to continue drawing their pay envelope will dare note its flaws. I’m not speaking theoretically, by the way; when the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago put on Pass Over in 2017, Hedy Weiss, a veteran critic of thirty-four years for the Chicago Sun-Times, dismissed it and its underlying premises in a review and was attacked as a racist on social media by a rage mob claiming injury from her pen. She was fired. Prostrate yourself to the new orthodoxy, or clean out your desk.
Pass Over’s lead characters are a sort of Vladimir and Estragon of the ’hood, two chatty black vagrants living on a junk-strewn lot in an unnamed city who vow to “get up off this block.” Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (Namir Smallwood), who affectionately address each other as “nigga,” discuss the pleasures of which they would avail themselves if only they could cross a river into a promised land of milk and honey. Why don’t they just start by getting some entry-level jobs? Fool, these are black men, and the racist constabulary will never allow this. Black people are forbidden success in this country, according to the playwright, a Harvard graduate with a play on Broadway.
The program features what may be the most pretentious description of setting I’ve ever seen:
time: the (future) present
but also 2021 C.E.
but also 1855 C.E.
but also 1440 B.C.E.
place: The river’s edge
but also a ghetto street
but also a plantation
but also a desert city built by slaves
(And also the new world to come ((worlds without ends))
Oh dear, thinks the weary theatergoer. Are we really about to be told that black Americans in 2021 are no better off than the slaves of ancient Egypt or those of the Antebellum South? We need an adjective harsher than “fatuous” to describe this level of reality denial. In a single ninety-five-minute act, Moses and Kitch repeatedly interrupt themselves to freeze and throw their hands in the air as though about to be shot by police, aver that the “po-po” (police) are dedicated to “killing niggas, mostly,” and encounter a mysterious white man (Gabriel Ebert) in a cream-colored suit who tempts them with all of the splendors of the Promised Land. A joke: when the white man reaches into his pocket, the two black men blanch as though they’re afraid of being shot. Never mind that interracial crimes are nine times more likely to be carried out by blacks against whites than the reverse, or that the data show there is no discernible pattern of racism in police shootings of suspects, or that black people are extremely unlikely to be murdered by police, or that the vast majority of black people who get murdered are put in their graves by other black people, not cops of any color. Surveys show 44 percent of liberals believe the number of unarmed black people killed by police each year surpasses 1,000 (the actual figure is more like one-fiftieth of that), and the theatergoing audience, being achingly far left, can reasonably be assured to be tickled by having its mythology reaffirmed. Whether it’s worth the cost of a theater ticket to be told a familiar lie in the most grindingly obvious way is a different question.
If you’re thinking the play sounds a bit trite and heavy-handed, I’m not doing my job. It’s unbelievably trite and heavy-handed.
The white interloper’s temptations begin to seem suspicious when he lets slip that his name is “Master,” which causes Moses and Kitch to blanch again, as though the chief source of discomfort for two guys who live under a street lamp and eat garbage is a chance allusion to plantation life. Naturally the white actor, Ebert, also plays a racist cop (is there any other kind?) who turns up later in the play to torment and taunt Moses and Kitch because they “don’t know their place.” We are also treated to a recitation of the names of dozens of black folks known to Moses and Kitch who were murdered, presumably by the police, and there is an interlude in which the two friends consider whether a murder-suicide pact is the only way for black people to escape the horrors of white supremacy.
If you’re thinking the play sounds a bit trite and heavy-handed, I’m not doing my job. It’s unbelievably trite and heavy-handed. It amounts to a lesson in how not to write: don’t build your play around demonstrably false premises, don’t blast your themes out into the audience like cannonballs, don’t overlook the importance of nuance, don’t be blatant with the metaphors and symbols, don’t be a bore. At the performance I attended, the black fellow next to me (one of the few present; the audience was perhaps 90 percent white) was plainly underwhelmed by the play, much of which he spent scanning his phone for something more interesting. Many theatergoers who take the reviews at face value are in for a similar experience. Pass Over is an embarrassingly bad play that should never have risen farther than the woke one-upmanship of the undergraduate seminar room, where the universe’s most privileged children seek attention via the simplest route available: identifying white-supremacist evils in every nook of twenty-first-century American life like the brainless teen girls in The Crucible claiming they saw Goody Osburn with the devil.
An opportunity to experience a play that pushes back against conventional left-wing narratives is ordinarily not to be missed, but the execution of an intriguing idea is poor, bordering on amateurish, in Trial on the Potomac: The Impeachment of Richard Nixon. The evening begins by launching into an alternate history: in what is expected to be his resignation speech, Nixon instead vows to stay and fight. Geoff Shepard, who in the real world was a young White House lawyer at the time, believes he could have successfully defended the president in an impeachment trial, whose charges he envisioned diverting against White House Counsel John W. Dean as the true author of the Watergate cover-up. The play is based on Shepard’s 2015 book The Real Watergate Scandal, and even those well-versed in Nixoniana may learn a thing or two.
It’s a shame that a more artful play didn’t result from Shepard’s memories and his research.
It’s a shame that a more artful play didn’t result from Shepard’s memories and his research. The piece (which ran in a small theater within St. Clement’s Church on West Forty-sixth Street in August and early September) came billed, oddly, as the New York stage debut of Rich Little, the celebrity impressionist who was one of the most popular stand-up comics in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Nixon was Little’s most celebrated character, but the act was a caricature for comic effect, not an interior-directed dramatic performance. At eighty-two, Little has virtually no record as a dramatic actor, but was evidently in the mood to stretch himself. Strangely, though, Nixon is offstage for most of the show after his opening monologue, appearing at length only in a climactic speech in his own defense. Little did not exactly impress with his delivery. He was clearly reading the monologue off an electronic prompter placed over the audience’s heads.
Other amateurish touches are woefully present throughout: the set looks like it came from a Goodwill store, the costumes and styling are off, and, as directed with all the flair of a high-school production by Josh Iacovelli, the large, third-rate cast frequently stumbled over its lines on the evening I attended. The play itself, a debut effort by a veteran Las Vegas musician named George J. Bugatti, is at best an interesting rough draft.
Shepard’s contention, filtered through Bugatti, is that Nixon was railroaded by a combination of Judge John Sirica, the “Deep State” (a sinister reference to which pops up in the play), and a public ignorance of the details of the case, fed by the media. As the play points out, Americans were broadly convinced that Nixon was guilty of . . . something, and still are today, but generally could not say exactly what that something was. The charge that the president obstructed justice is, upon reflection, not especially strong, and it remains unproven that Nixon personally directed the “hush-money” payment of $75,000 to Howard Hunt, the cia man who bugged the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate building. Shepard’s contention is that Dean, not Nixon, was the ultimate mastermind of the break-in, and that he did so not to dig up dirt on Democrats ahead of the 1972 election (wouldn’t it have made more sense to spy on individual campaigns rather than the dnc?) but to cover up the sexual past of his then-fiancée, later wife, Maureen. (John W. Dean sued the publisher of a 1992 book along these lines, Silent Coup, which alleged that a prostitution ring was being run out of the Watergate, and won an undisclosed sum in a settlement. Both Deans are still living.)
As Ted Kennedy (Richard Wingert) and his associates gloat about and mock Nixon’s predicament, Shepard (the eager if forgettable Nick Mauldin) pushes his boss, Nixon’s lead personal attorney, James St. Clair (Troy Sill), to mount a muscular defense that effectively puts Dean on trial and deals with the obstruction charge by noting that the June 23, 1972 “Smoking Gun tape” in which Nixon broached the possibility of using the cia to stave off the fbi investigation has been misinterpreted. Shepard—the first person to dub the recording a “smoking gun”—has some backing from Dean himself, as stated in Dean’s overlooked 2014 book The Nixon Defense, What He Knew and When He Knew It, in contending that Nixon wasn’t discussing Watergate at all in this conversation, but was referring to using the cia to dissuade the fbi from revealing that prominent Democrats who wished to remain anonymous, including the former finance chairman of Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 campaign, had donated to Nixon anonymously just before enactment of new legislation that mandated donor disclosure. Two years later, when he resigned, Nixon himself had apparently forgotten the context of the conversation and bought into the spin that the tape proved he was covering up Watergate.
All of this might have yielded a contrarian legal drama that successfully leads the audience to believe that an impeachment trial of Richard Nixon might not have gone as smoothly for the prosecution as the media and historians would have us believe. Yet the play, in setting out to advance a sort of anti–Aaron Sorkin vision of scheming, malevolent Democrats, winds up being equally anti-Sorkinite in its witless dialogue and narrative unruliness. “They’ve stacked the deck against you—want to level the playing field?” is a typically clumsy line. There are aspects to Nixon’s climactic speech that seem consonant with Nixon’s brooding combativeness and awkward tone—“Welcome to Dick Nixon’s lynching party; is this mic bugged?” he asks at the outset, and I could picture the man himself saying something similarly unfunny, but despite decades of preparation for the role, Little fails to make the speech the barn burner it is meant to be. In short, Trial on the Potomac could be a worthwhile play, but only if it were rewritten, recast, and restaged.
The one-man show The Book of Moron (at the Soho Playhouse through October 3), which stars and was written by Robert Dubac, carries a startling credit: “Directed by Garry Shandling.” Shandling, an actor and stand-up comic, died five years ago. It’s not unusual for productions to be re-mounted for several years after their debuts, but Shandling’s brand of comedy (he was born in 1949) peaked in the 1980s, when he guest-hosted for Johnny Carson. You might as well announce that your play is a museum piece. The theater audience is famously older than average, but even graying audiences know a stale act when they hear one, and Dubac’s style of humor suggests he hasn’t kept up with comedy trends of the last two generations.
Dubac is an obscure television actor and stand-up comic who has crafted the show around a character who has woken up from a coma with impaired memory and conducts an interior dialogue with a number of selves. Dubac offers heaps of sophomoric existential humor and a clatter of would-be clever one-liners augmented by magic tricks, props (at one point he sticks tubes in his ears and wiggles them to indicate activity in his “bullshit detector”). There is also a chalkboard upon which he has written a list of supposedly taboo comedy topics (sex, religion, media) that haven’t actually been taboo since Joe Biden was in grade school. As Dubac plays off himself, arguing with his own taped voice, he does a kind of stream-of-consciousness patter reminiscent of Robin Williams’s act in the 1970s, but with neither Williams’s hilarious surrealism nor anything resembling a fresh take on anything. Among his jokes is that all marriage is same-sex marriage because . . . it’s the same sex, year after year. I think Nixon was still in office the last time jokes about the alleged sexlessness of marriage seemed novel. “If you get mugged by a woman, does she only steal 70 cents on the dollar?” is Dubac’s idea of a pointed joke about the fictitious gender wage gap.
Dubac tries to evenly parcel out jokes aimed at both Left and Right, but comes across as an ordinary moderate Democrat.
Dubac fancies himself a bit edgy and politically incorrect (“I’m a white male over fifty, so everything’s my fault”), but he never ventures more than half a step off approved conversational pathways. He may not be aware of this, but despite the Taliban-like enforcement of PC norms in the mainstream media, and on social-media sites such as Twitter, there are lots of vigorously anti-PC comedy acts in the clubs these days, led by arena-filling comics such as Ricky Gervais, Dave Chappelle, and Louis C. K. All are scathing in different ways to bien-pensant sensibilities and all regularly inspire finger-wagging columns from the sorts of left-wing commentators who would find absolutely nothing objectionable in Dubac’s mild, tame act.
Dubac tries to evenly parcel out jokes aimed at both Left and Right, but comes across as an ordinary moderate Democrat—slightly annoyed by cancel culture, but even more annoyed by the existence of a single right-leaning cable news channel. Indulging one vapid cliché after another, he makes several tepid jokes whose premise is that Fox News Channel peddles false and inflammatory information, though Fox is no more guilty of this tendency than the supposedly objective cnn. There’s a critical race theory joke here too—Dubac’s premise is that the hostility toward this profoundly anti-American intellectual fad is driven by a fabrication on the part of Fox. He thinks it’s ironic that Alabama has four syllables because, according to him, no one in Alabama knows any other four-syllable words.
Duboc stresses that The Book of Moron is a one-man piece of theater, not a club routine, by which I suppose he means that the lighting changes a bit when he switches from one voice to another, and he moves around the stage and employs more props than most stand-ups do. His use of these items is questionable. At one point, holding a black cloth in front of him, he pretends to poke the cloth with an erection. Maybe a two-drink minimum would make this act seem funny, but I doubt it.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 2, on page 37
Copyright © 2021 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com