It’s a terrible lot, being a former commander-in-chief. The deaths of American soldiers eat at your conscience. Assassins still hide in the shadows. No one appreciates your sacrifices. And occasionally, you’re trapped in a holding pen with your peers, each insisting they had it worse than you did.
Welcome to the torture chamber that is Old Log Theatre’s “Five Presidents,” a one-act play determined to strip the pomp and circumstances from politics.
Playwright Rick Cleveland, a veteran of the “Mad Men” and “West Wing” TV writing rooms, has dreamed up a conversation among four ex-chiefs and then-President Bill Clinton as they await Richard Nixon’s 1994 funeral.
It’s hard to imagine the quintet would be left alone for 85 minutes to talk shop in a space that offers all the glamour of a Super 8 Motel meeting room. It’s even harder to believe they’d spend that precious time bickering, swearing and digging up old grudges. At one point, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter get into a tussle over a bottle of gin, leaving one of them with a bloody nose.
“We’re all actors. We’ve all had to lie through our teeth. We’re all going to hell, fellas,” says Ronald Reagan (Steve Sheridan), suffering from dementia that intermittently turns him into a character reminiscent of John Huston in “Chinatown.”
Cleveland, who originally wrote this drama for the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s 2015 season, doesn’t play party favorites. Each ex gets his chance to gripe.
George H.W. Bush (Casey Lewis) is still steamed about Ross Perot, whose third-party candidacy helped scuttle Bush’s re-election. Carter (Martin L’Herault, doing double duty as the show’s director) explodes at Reagan for interfering in the Iranian hostage crisis. Ford (James Ramlet) is so tired of people griping about his decision to pardon Nixon that he’s trying to back out of giving the eulogy. Clinton (William Gilness) just wants a little respect — and Goldie Hawn’s phone number.
None have many good things to say about Nixon.
“He was a first-rate intellect and a third-rate person,” says Bush, wagging his finger at a framed photo of the deceased, whose eyes seem to follow his successors as they pace around the room.
Lewis seems to have carefully studied the mannerisms of the elder Bush — or Dana Carvey’s impression, at least. Sheridan, by contrast, doesn’t try to impersonate Reagan, aside from an excessive makeup job that appears as if he just walked out of the U.S. history section of Madame Tussaud’s wax museum.
Accuracy isn’t really on the agenda, although the playwright checks off plenty of real-life headlines. Some are obvious: Clinton’s affair with Gennifer Flowers. His health care plan. The legacy of “Bedtime for Bonzo.”
Others are not. At one point, Ford insists that Nixon only defeated Hubert Humphrey because of his appearance on “Laugh-In.” It’s a theory that may not be in most history textbooks, but still, an amusing thought.
It’s one of the lighter moments in a production where you can almost see the weight of the world bearing down on the quintet’s shoulders. If they got any joy from being the world’s most powerful person, they must be saving those memories for a less somber affair.
The musical choices echo the drama’s intentions. As audience members find their seats, they hear soaring anthems on the theater’s sound system, including Ray Charles’ “America the Beautiful” and James Brown’s “Living in America.” But after the final bows, the song is “This Land Is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie’s thinly veiled indictment of the American dream.
It’s not very uplifting or patriotic. Neither is the play.