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Mocking the president is every funny patriot’s duty when the commander in chief has a despot’s disdain for free speech. Nonetheless, Donald Trump poses a unique conundrum for comedy writers: His actual words, deeds, attitudes, and grooming habits are as outrageous as caricature, threatening to make any spoof feel redundant or inadequate. Satire usually involves diagnosing society’s ills by exaggerating reality or turning it askew. But reality already seems plenty exaggerated and skewed at the moment, what with the rage, narcissism, dangerous volatility, and flagrant dishonesty of the world’s most powerful person causing international conniptions every news cycle. He may be a clown, but hey, clowns are scary.
Trump’s menacing aspect is mostly missing from Transparent Falsehood: An American Travesty, Gil Kofman’s disordered comedy about the president. Laughs are mostly missing, too. Instead, Kofman spends ninety minutes repeatedly making the well-established point that Trump is loud and unpleasant. The premise of the play is that the TV star–turned–standard-bearer statesman thinks that he’s being followed by a camera crew shooting a reality show that will reveal to the public who he truly is. But that particular project is only in Trump’s imagination, part of his all-consuming need to be the center of national attention at all times. You might wonder, though, why Trump would have to harbor such a delusion, considering that he’s on the 24-hour news channels every second of the day. Even the Kardashians can only dream of getting that much cable airtime.
Ezra Barnes, who plays Trump in Richard Caliban’s unfocused staging for Picture Pending Productions, doesn’t supply a straightforward impression of the president. For starters, he looks nothing like him — Barnes has a lean frame, dark hair, and not a trace of orange in his complexion. As the play goes on, however, the actor begins to adopt more of Trump’s Queens accent and jerky hand gestures, and by the midpoint he has already donned a blond wig. The point of this transformation seems to be to suggest that Trump has assumed a role that has entrapped him. Or, maybe the disconnect between Barnes and the part he’s playing is meant to distance the audience from our preconceived notions about Trump so that Kofman can say something new about him. Trouble is, the first option requires more character depth than Kofman (or the real-life Trump, for that matter) provides, and the second calls for an original take on Trump, which we also don’t get here.
What we do get is a circus of boorish behavior. We see Trump tucking in youngest son Barron (Wyatt Fenner, playing the twelve-year-old as a squealing fop for some reason) with bedtime stories about losers and fearsome Muslims. Trump calls the first lady (Stephanie Fredricks, employing a thick Slavic accent) a “dumb immigrant” and orders her to do ab crunches to maintain her figure. At a self-aggrandizing rally, Trump shows off his “beautiful” colonoscopy footage (and yes, Lianne Arnold’s video projections include a good long look). Former adviser Steve Bannon (Chuck Montgomery) runs into his onetime boss in a men’s room, where the old pals swap anti-Semitic remarks and compare penises (we are mercifully spared that view). At Mar-a-Lago, a poolside Passover seder for son-in-law Jared (Fenner again, sporting sidelocks this time) and first daughter Ivanka (Latonia Phipps) is disrupted by Trump’s icky flirting with his favorite child. And so on.
Too scattershot to hit a target, these scenes tell us what we already know about Trump — that he’s a misogynistic, xenophobic, self-besotted bully — and then they tell us again several more times. But the real Trump in the real White House doesn’t need any help getting that message across; he’s made it loud and clear, and with just the sort of outlandish antics that Kofman strains to invent. What the show fails to consider, and what would be valuable in a satire of this administration, is what Trump’s presidency says about the rest of us: not just the horrified majority, but the significant portion of the U.S. population who voted for him and continue to support him. They don’t view his regime as a bad joke that’s gone on too long. They see it as a promise of resurgent American greatness. That’s the really scary part.