Reviewed By Jara Jones
There’s a line late in the play where Donald Trump (played with a disarming earnestness by Ezra Barnes) sneers at his doctor: If you don’t know how to juggle, just throw the balls up in the air and run away. And with that sentence, my frustrations with Transparent Falsehood became crystal clear. The play is a barrage of disjointed, abandoned ideas – a raucous, aggressive soundtrack, lifeless puppets intended to represent straw men, a shimmering penis chandelier, a lone Confederate flag perched at attention among a sea of American banners. Does it want to be obvious, outrageous camp to soothe people anxious about our current political clime? Does the piece desire for honest, unexpected drama, as the production notes claim, to offer “a renewed and poignant passport into the enveloping madness?” The play strives to cover both tonal shifts and in doing so, fails as either sharp satire or an eye-opening meditation on the life Donald Trump may lead outside of the political sphere.
How can you control your desired version of the truth when subjected to constant scrutiny and scorn? Donald Trump, surrounded by his wheedling son Barron, his jaded wife Melania, his Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, along with the true object of his affections – his amenable daughter Ivanka and her hapless husband Jared, hatches upon a fool-proof plan, akin to what Nixon chose. He decides to hire a camera crew to film him twenty-fours a day – while having sex, in the process of performing his one man special on HBO, even when comparing penis sizes with Bannon over a pair of urinals. The process of non-stop monitoring, and the toil it takes on Trump, along with his family and acquaintances, drives the heart of the play.
Kudos to Lianne Arnold for her evocative, world-building projections. I’ve never seen an artist create such fluid and mesmerizing landscapes in a black box theatre. I wish the rest of the set design and transitions were as crisp and seamless. Stagehands between scenes grunt and bump actors while carrying large, ornately designed fixtures. There’s a race car bed for Barron, (because, get it – he’s childish!) elaborate and bright red which is used once for less than ten minutes and then thoughtlessly discarded inches from the audience.
Gil Kofman’s script and Richard Caliban’s direction are the root of the play’s complications. Kofman writes with broad, slapstick strokes, and then undercuts what little tension or suspense exists almost immediately. Caliban, rather than create a more three-dimensional story, directs the cast as to reduce every character to a mealy trope: Wyatt Fenner’s Barron pouts and preens, Stephanie Fredricks as Melania and the Teacher is reduced to tired stereotypes in dialect and dress. Latonia Phipps as Ivanka becomes little more than forbidden fruit for the Donald, a ball of surface exuberance. Chuck Montgomery leers and hulks around as Bannon/Additional Characters.
But the one shining light in the production was its casting of Ezra Barnes as Trump. Despite what little he was given in words or direction, Barnes crackles with an earnest, natural gusto. No matter what demeaning acts are called for , despite the tonal whiplash from scene to scene, he endows Trump with ease, in essence being more comfortable and self-assured in his skin than perhaps the very man himself.
I left the theatre feeling similar to stumbling out of a roller coaster; artificially shaken by its designers, frustrated and unable to appreciate the mish-mash of sights I’ve witnessed. One last image kept cycling through my brain – a long, black pole with a cartoonish drawing of a penis and testicles, wagging up and down while Trump stylistically penetrates Melania. Surely, I wondered, staggering into the night, surely this was far from unexpected novelty or a poignant examination of a contentious figure.
Transparent Falsehood: An American Travesty runs until May 19th at Theater 511 (511 W 54th St.) https://www.transparentfalsehood.com