Opened by suffragettes in 1921 as a gathering place for public debate, The Town Hall in New York City has often lived up to its name. Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger was once arrested on the stage for trying to speak about birth control. In 1971, Norman Mailer jousted with women writers in one of the most legendary brawls of the last 50 years.
And with actual town halls being filled around America with mad-as-hell constituents confronting their representatives, what could be a better place to stage British playwright Nicolas Kent’s invigorating, one-night-only production, All the President’s Men: Scenes from the Senate Confirmation Hearings of President Trump’s Cabinet. (The two-hour, 45-minute play was also performed once before, on April 27 in London.)
Kent’s text is derived directly from this past January’s confirmation hearings for four of President Donald Trump’s cabinet appointments: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (Alec Baldwin), Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price (David Costabile), Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt (Aasif Mandvi), and Attorney General Jeff Sessions (Nathan Osgood). The four hearings, each about 40 minutes long onstage, have been edited down from their epic lengths into tight, fascinating one-acts.
The New York audience was nakedly partisan, of course. But other than in a few instances — such as when they laughed derisively at Tillerson’s mention of the Boy Scouts in his introductory statement — the crowd did not strengthen the stereotype of themselves (as privileged, clueless, and condescending) that Trump and his supporters have painted.
It is true that the play functions to confirm what liberals already believe — namely, that Trump’s cabinet picks are a demolition crew, chosen to wreck their respective departments from the inside. But there is something deeper in the experience, and that is the thrilling drama of very recent history being played out before your eyes in practically real-time. The rowdy audience was often hushed to rapt silence by moments in the play, particularly during the titanic, chilling monologue by Regina Taylor as Sen. Dianne Feinstein that closes the show.
Below, here are the best moments from All the President’s Men?, with special attention to the performances. Though the National Theatre (which produced it in London) or the Public Theatre (which did so here) have not yet announced plans for more performances, you can bet that it will come around again.
Alec Baldwin as Former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson
Baldwin’s embodiment of Trump on Saturday Night Live might have erased audiences’ memories a bit of what a remarkably subtle and quiet actor he can be. His performance as Tillerson (whom John Goodman has played on SNL) nailed the big oil man’s low-growl delivery — and faux-laconic ignorance of widely known facts. “I need to have greater information before I comment,” he repeats like a mantra when asked about Syria, Russia, and climate change.
Raúl Esparza as Sen. Marco Rubio
Not everyone onstage was an actor (The New Yorker editor David Remnick delivered a flat performance as Sen. Al Franken), but the obvious talent of Tony-nominated Esparza was vibrantly on display. He captured the weird energy and teenager ticks of the man who Trump dubbed “Little Marco.” Rubio’s toughness on the nominee, especially regarding the topic of murderous President Duterte of the Philippines (Tillerson: “It’s an area I want to understand in greater detail”), is magnificent theater. And undercut by the knowledge, unmentioned in the play, that Rubio ultimately voted to confirm Tillerson.
Hecklers in the hall
At several points in the evening, very convincing actors and security guards recreated heckler outbursts from the various hearings. Especially considering that an anti-Trump protest was gathered outside the Town Hall before the show, the audience at first believed that the protests were real.
Ron Rifkin as Sen. Bernie Sanders
Rifkin, wearing lime green-framed eyeglasses, was as overt in his gestures as the independent senator from Vermont — or as Sanders’ SNL impersonator Larry David. His interrogation of HHS nominee Tom Price (above), seemingly extemporaneous, was a torrent of skill and stagecraft as delivered by Rifkin. And in one of the neatest theatrical tricks of the night, Sanders exits the Price hearing midway through the testimony — and arrives in the middle of a later hearing, complaining that both were being held on the same day.
Denis O’Hare as Sen. Lindsey Graham
Tony-winning actor O’Hare (American Horror Story) relished the opportunity to portray the obsequious Republican. Graham and Donald Trump have a contentious relationship, yet the senator has lavishly supported the president’s cabinet nominees. And O’Hare, who’s too often typecast as a villain, sublimely captured Graham’s tone and vibe.
Ellen Burstyn as Sen. Elizabeth Warren
The Oscar-winning actress has given innumerable amazing performances over the course of her career, including in The Exorcist, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and Requiem for a Dream. But this five-minute tour de force as Sen. Elizabeth Warren might just be the 84-year-old’s zenith. Before the show began, the audience was asked to not greet the actors onstage with customary entrance applause. But as you can see, when Burstyn as Warren took the mic, nevertheless they persisted.