Presidential Game of Beat the Clock

The President
by Ferenc Molnár (Adapted by Morwyn Brebner)

When was the last time you attended a stage play, of any variety, that fully utilized 23 spirited professional actors? Storm Theater Company gives us the opportunity to see this in an excellent production of The President, a madcap farce resurrected intact from olden days when large and varied casts were customary. As then, The President gives each supporting actor a moment of undivided focus, in concert with great comic performances by the principals.

The President is a highly fast-paced and hilarious farce. Its 75 minutes fly by lickety-split as it tells the story of an officious and manipulative big bank president, Norrison (Joe Danbusky), as he is driven by self-interest to accomplish the (almost) impossible. In a scant one hour, he must transform the drab, dull-witted, communist, yet handsome husband of his ward Lydia (Becca Pesce) into a "captain of industry": a husband acceptable to Lydia's parents. This is precipitated when Lydia (the daughter of the "soybean king of Iowa") reveals that she has secretly married Tony (Mathew Waterson) and is with child by him. Norrison has big business plans to make yet an additional bundle in association with her father, and is horrified that he has failed to keep Lydia "pure" while she lived with his family. Lydia's parents are to arrive in one hour, and know nothing of the marriage, and Norrison is scheduled to leave on a well-deserved family vacation in that same one hour. And so, in rapid-fire manner, Norrison moves into action, re-forming Tony into a capitalist Übermensch like himself.

The basics of the story will be familiar to those who have seen Billy Wilder's film One, Two, Three with James Cagney, which was very loosely based on this play. (It is interesting to note how the Hollywood version denuded the original material of some of its punch by opening it up to make it cinematic.) Speaking with the rat-ta-tat precision of a military commander, Norrison instructs his team with exactitude as to what and how it is to be done. Poor Tony, resistant at first, acquiesces to Norrison's demands, encouraged by the woman he loves.

Kudos must go to Joe Danbusky, whose portrayal of the President is a tour-de- force of naturalistic comic acting. Talking a mile a minute, he never fumbled his multitudinous lines, rattling off his commands with comic ferocity that was like a force of nature. (He is also a singer and would be superb doing Gilbert & Sullivan if given the opportunity.) Matthew Waterson's Tony displays a perfect melding of slow-wittedness with earthy charm. Becca Pesce was wonderful as Lydia, her beautiful voice mixing hilarity and absurdity with the carefully poised and modulated tones of a woman in love and blatant but politely controlled lust. Spencer Aste as the well-named Bartelby, the ever-smiling, creepily cheerful, obsequious assistant, keeps all of Norrison's wheels in motion with a relentless grin (which probably required muscle relaxants to unfix after each performance).

The ancillary participants in Norrison's undertaking draw on the character acting skills of 19 unique performers. The tailor, the doctor, board of directors, three secretaries, head of the automotive division, lawyer, etc. are all given a moment -- often several moments -- to show how engagingly interesting smaller characters can be. With the tight budgets of most theatrical productions, rarely do we get to see such an array of characters, each with his own agenda and preoccupation. Indeed, a truly enjoyable aspect of The President is that you never know who will show up next. Or, if showing up again, what state will he be in? What fun!

This kind of farce requires the relentless pace that director Peter Dobbins so skillfully kept in motion. In 2010, Mr. Dobbins directed Storm Theatre's moving production of Paul Claudel's Noon Divide. Clearly, Mr. Dobbins can deftly render both serious drama and uproarious comedy with the same high quality artistic panache.

Although one can look for serious overtones, how about just enjoying how ridiculous and satisfying life can be in the wacky and wonderful world of The President? Besides that, I always want (and here got) a happy ending. - Jay Reisberg

The President is playing weekends through May 26, 2012 at the Church of Notre Dame, 405 West 114th St., Manhattan.

jay-reisberg-photoPhoto by Michael Abrams.

Mr. Reisberg is a UCLA film school grad, professional singer, comedian, and bon vivant at large.

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