Karyl Newman’s set for My Buddy Bill is a cozy, low-key affair nestled on the stage of the renovated Geffen Playhouse’s cozy, low-key Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater. A cherry-wood Mission desk and an old-fashioned, Front Page swivel chair sit on an oval pediment anchored to the floor. It’s the Oval Office. Or, an oval office — one belonging to real-life TV writer Rick Cleveland, who won an Emmy for his work on The West Wing and who would have us believe the story he is about to tell came about during a research visit to Bill Clinton’s White House. That the upstage wall looks like a curving, Cinerama screen showing a seascape hints that Cleveland’s 75-minute solo piece will be a movie blend of fact and fiction, a history that rests heavily on what screenwriters like to euphemistically call “storytelling.”
Cleveland, it seems, was on a White House tour one day, checking out his show’s famous location, when the American president entered the Oval Office with his dog, Buddy. All watched the chocolate Labrador urinate on the rug. With a little pet psychology, Cleveland tells us, he intervened, curing Buddy of his antisocial tic and winning Clinton’s lasting gratitude. Before long Bill and Hillary are spending time in Malibu with Cleveland and his wife, Mary (this show’s dramaturge). It’s over dinner in a restaurant that popular perceptions of the Clintons are confirmed: Bill is every bit the affable but slightly henpecked husband, Hill is the brittle wife who trains too hard at being the politician she hopes to become. At one point, she explains to Rick and Mary that her Secret Service code name is Evergreen because of her fondness for pines, then quickly spins her admission: “Don’t get me wrong — I like deciduous trees too.”
More rendezvous between Cleveland and Clinton follow, including a post-presidency trip to Arkansas in which the two drink beer and engage Clinton’s half-brother, Roger, and actor Billy Bob Thornton in a mean game of Trivial Pursuit. Finally, a trip with Christopher Walken to an Amsterdam hash joint sets the beautiful friendship rolling toward its end.
Under Peter Birkenhead’s direction, Cleveland wisely confines his Bill and Hill impersonations to a few brief sentences, while turning in a dolorous portrayal of himself. His narrative is metronomically downbeat and unfailingly ironic, filled with prickly little observations about life that quickly win the audience’s appreciation. It’s a voice familiar to many because it speaks to our age, or, at least, to our age of solo performers. If the 1960s saw the emergence of poet-performers who, like John Giorno, barked out messy confessionals, they were followed by successive generations of cool, detached and controlled monologists, like Spalding Gray and David Sedaris, whose every comma and raised eyebrow entailed a monumental effort of existential will.
Cleveland tips the evening’s forbidden-friendship theme at the outset when he notes that the trouble with marriage is that it causes one to lose touch with friends. Clinton, whose sexual magnetism he acknowledges, will initiate Cleveland into an oddly dangerous, if Platonic liaison, all because the TV writer taught Bill’s old dog a new trick. It’s instantly obvious that My Buddy Bill is a fictional or, at the very least, fictionalized account of a relationship, but Cleveland doesn’t take it half as far as he could. Why not turn the dinner date into a swinger’s four-way? After all, he has already gotten a laugh at Hillary’s expense with talk about discovering one’s porno names (take the name of your first pet and add it to the name of the first street you lived on), and he was a longtime writer for Six Feet Under, so there should be no inhibitions.
Instead, My Buddy Bill settles for a few gentle laughs that never embarrass or endanger our good feelings about the 42nd president. Like The West Wing, the show becomes another example of wishful Capra-esque thinking about the White House when it’s a home to a liberal. From Gore Vidal’s The Best Man to films like The American Presidentand The Contender, Hollywood Democrats have viewed their men in the Oval Office as Solomonic and tough, but also humane and human. But that opinion, continually contradicted by history, is, like the seascape on Newman’s set, merely a projection.
Who doesn’t love a good trailer-trash play now and then? The Mad Scene Theater Company tests the genre’s popularity with Canadian playwright Ron Chambers’ Dirt, an uneven 1997 black comedy the group is giving its U.S. premiere at the Son of Semele Theater. Set “somewhere cold and remote in the sprawling northern Midwest, USA,” Dirt introduces us to the angry, profane and exceedingly unfriendly Murphy (Jeffrey Markle), a man who’s soon adding “morose” to his mood list upon learning that he is being placed under house arrest following the murder of his girlfriend. Make that under “trailer arrest,” since that’s where the viscerally misanthropic Murphy resides, along with his offstage dog and cow. (Designer Rene Vas creates a wonderfully grimy kitchen set that spatially, however, suggests a cabin rather than a double-wide.)
Murphy lands in a near-futuristic predicament, with the prairie police evidently enjoying powers of detention of suspects who haven’t even been arrested and charged, let alone arraigned. To make matters worse, the cops inject a tracking chip into his buttocks and leave a raw civilian recruit named Greta (Pat Caldwell) to keep him under constant surveillance — and to goad him into confessing. Comparisons are inevitable, and Dirt’s flat psychological terrain, abetted here by Lindsay Jones’ howling wind sound design, may remind viewers of the bleak American steppe depicted in Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe and Bug. Chambers’ characters, however, never betray any development — after about two hours they are simply more of what they were when they first appeared, which is usually loud and over the top. Nowhere is this more evident than in the character of Mrs. Boras (Nina Sallinen), a screeching, penny-pinching harpy who occasionally drops by to sell pierogies — viewers quickly learn to flinch at the sight of her red gloves, which tend to appear in the doorway before the rest of her.
Worse, the playwright suffers from a kind of narrative ADD and can’t seem to decide what he wants his play to be about. Is it a social critique? A romantic satire? A rube farce? We’ll never know because themes are raised and dropped like so many conversations. Chambers comes closest to defining his ideas in an affecting scene where Greta begins to write a string of job-application letters for the most dead-end positions imaginable; after spending nine years at a McDonald’s, she still finds herself without the professional or social skills needed to avoid economic extinction.
The main strengths of director Stephanie Manglaras’ production lie in a pair of enjoyable performances. Markle’s Murphy, an impassive hulk of a figure in a flannel shirt and long johns, manages nuanced moments of despair between tirades against the shrinking Greta, while Bart Petty’s cynical detective, Falkin, brings a cheery menace to the proceedings. Falkin is obsessed with nailing Murphy for the murder — even though he has no evidence against him. “When I walk into church on Sunday, do I ask for proof?” he glibly explains to a subordinate (Ransford Doherty).
Falkin isn’t merely on a quest for justice — the rogue cop sees his plan to break Murphy as part of a larger extermination campaign against the rural underclass, because, as he says, “They’ll just keep breeding. We’ll be overrun!” Lines like these bring the play close to social commentary, but in the end Dirt plays like a skit from Second City TV gone terribly long and wrong.
MY BUDDY BILL | Written and performed by RICK CLEVELAND | At the Geffen Playhouse’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood | Through December 18 | (310) 208-5454
DIRT | By RON CHAMBERS | At the Mad Scene at Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd. | Through December 18 | (818) 761-9149