25 April 2015

"Presidents at the Theater"

by Rebecca Ritzel

[Now seems an auspicious moment to republish the article below, “Presidents at the Theater.”  Last Tuesday, 14 April, was the 150th anniversary of the night that Pres. Abraham Lincoln was fatally shot at Ford’s Theatre by actor John Wilkes Booth.  (Lincoln died in the house across Northwest 10th Street early the next morning.)  Fortunately for us, not to mention theatergoing presidents, sudden death has not commonly been the final act of attendance at a play (though some few may have felt like it was).  The impetus for this Washington Post feature on presidents who went to the theater was the visit of former Pres. Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, to Washington’s Arena Stage for a performance of the new play by Lawrence Wright, Camp David, about his hosting the historic peace conference with Israeli Prime Minster Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Pres. Anwar Sadat in 1978.  (I’ve also appended another brief report on the Carters’ visit to the theater and the review of the play, just to complete the record.)

[This article was published in the Washington Post’s “Style” section on Wednesday, 2 April 2014.]

Backstage: Jimmy Carter, a longtime theater fan, to attend world premiere of ‘Camp David’

Thursday night in Southwest Washington, former president Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, will file through security checks and take their seats at Arena Stage for the red-carpet world premiere of a new play, “Camp David.” For Washingtonians who have become accustomed to presidential theatergoing amounting to the Kennedy Center Honors and an occasional date night in New York, seeing a president at a local theater may come as something of a shock.

But those who remember the Carter administration will smile knowingly and nod. Of course President Carter is going to Arena Stage. President Carter was a theater guy. He wouldn’t miss this premiere for the world, although maybe for world peace.

Although he was in office for just four years, Carter holds the record for the most trips to the Kennedy Center by a sitting president, with 28. He remains the only president to ever attend a play by Eugene O’Neill, and his idea of entertaining foreign dignitaries was inviting everyone from opera star Beverly Sills to a children’s theater troupe to come sing show tunes at the White House.

“Carter is easily in the top six or seven of the theatergoing presidents,” said Thomas A. Bogar, a retired history professor based in Silver Spring who wrote the 2006 book “American Presidents Attend the Theatre.”

Not since Woodrow Wilson had an American president gone to the theater so regularly — once a month his first year in office.

“Carter, compared to many other presidents, went to the theater more for genuine appreciation and intellectual stimulation,” Bogar said. “He had eclectic taste, and such a wide appreciation for all the different genres of theater.”

Less than a month after the Carters moved to Washington, the peanut-farmer-in-chief made a spur-of-the-moment decision to catch “Madame Butterfly” at the Kennedy Center one day after church. He caused a commotion when he and Rosalynn showed up in the presidential box with their pastor, daughter Amy and several other friends in tow. They stayed for all three hours and headed backstage afterward.

By contrast, Gerald Ford’s last operatic outing ended with the president and his entourage leaving the Metropolitan Opera’s production of “La Boheme” at intermission. Carter’s enthusiasm caught the press corps off guard, but soon photographers realized they were tailing a president who relished a weekend matinee or a night on the town.

As he did research, Bogar exchanged letters with Carter several times. “I am usually overwhelmed by a great performance,” Carter wrote in one note to Bogar, “and I consider it an honor to meet the artists.”

Carter made a point of seeing nearly every pre-Broadway tryout that came through Washington, and the District’s theaters hosted several during his term. Of the musical “Annie,” Carter said, “There’s no doubt in my mind that it will be completely successful.” But his taste ran the gamut, and when he went backstage to meet John Lithgow after a performance of O’Neill’s drama “Anna Christie,” the president informed the actor he had read the script in advance and accused Lithgow of ad-libbing a peanut joke.

Liv Ullmann, Lithgow’s co-star, was one of many actors who was invited to the White House after receiving a backstage handshake. Another was the British actor Ian McKellen, who came to Washington as the star of a pre-Broadway tuneup for Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus.” The dark comedy about Mozart and his rival Antonio Salieri was the first show the Carters saw after he lost the election to Ronald Reagan, an actor who wouldn’t venture out to the theater nearly as often.

McKellen said Carter’s loss cast a pall over the production, which began previews at the National Theatre on election night. “Washington was rather distraught,” the actor said. (McKellen shared this story with The Washington Post in January, after he recorded voice-overs for the Olney Theatre’s production of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”)

Carter “came backstage afterwards, and he asked me if I thought ‘Amadeus’ would be suitable for his young daughter, and I said, ‘I don’t know, you should judge that, but I think people should go to the theater at as early an age as possible,’ ” McKellen recalled. Amy Carter, 13 at the time, came a few nights later and enjoyed the show. McKellen was then invited to the White House, along with his friend Angela Lansbury, who was in town starring as Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd.”

“So the two of us had the tour. It didn’t end in the Oval Office — it began in the Oval Office, and then it went to even more special places,” McKellen said. The president did “his work in a little office down the corridor. It had a real log fire burning, and a view of the Washington Monument. . . . He had three books on his desk: one was the Bible, one was a biography of the current pope, and one was collected poetry of Dylan Thomas.”

Carter’s visit to Arena Stage to see “Camp David” will be a first by any president. Other local theaters, including Ford’s and Shakespeare, have hosted presidents in the past, and one possible — yet unconfirmed — explanation is that before the renovation, Arena Stage had too many entrances to be properly secured. The new play by Lawrence Wright stars Richard Thomas as Carter, Hallie Foote as Rosalynn and Ron Rifkin as Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

“It is going to be interesting what Carter’s perception of Richard Thomas is. The resemblance is so striking, the youth and the energy is there,” Bogar said.

One critical matter that’s far easier to speculate on: that Carter will probably want to meet the actors, because of all recent presidents, Bogar says, it is Carter who best understands the very fine line between acting as a president and playing the role of commander in chief on the world’s stage.

[Ritzel is a freelance writer.

[Camp David by Lawrence Wright. Directed by Molly Smith. Through May 4 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Tickets, $75-$120.]

*  *  *  *
by Liz Seymour

[This article was posted on the Washington Post's website on 4 April 2014; http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/reliable-source/wp/2014/04/04/jimmy-carters-emotional-night-at-camp-david.]

Richard Thomas as Jimmy Carter and Ron Rifkin as Menachem Begin in Camp David at Arena Stage. (Photo by Teresa Wood)
Richard Thomas as Jimmy Carter and Ron Rifkin as Menachem Begin in Camp David at Arena Stage. (Photo by Teresa Wood)
It doesn’t happen every day — not even when you’re a former president. But from Row F at the Arena Stage Thursday evening and in the midst of a star-studded Washington crowd, former President Jimmy Carter was given a rare glimpse of himself and his presidency during the premier of “Camp David.”

The new play revisits the 13 days of negotiations in 1978 that led to an accord between Egypt and Israel. But it was the first time a president and his wife came to the Arena, said Molly Smith, the theater’s artistic director and the play’s director. Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, watched themselves portrayed on stage as two of the four main characters. Journalists and politicians, including Andrea Mitchell, Bob Schieffer, Chris Matthews, Judy Woodruff, Nancy Pelosi and former Congressman Dan Glickman flooded the audience.

When the 90-minute performance ended and the cast received a standing ovation, the Carters did too. Then they were escorted to the stage to embrace the actors (Richard Thomas of the Waltons and Hallie Foote) who played them. All four became emotional on stage. Earlier the former president and his wife were feted at a dinner of rack of lamb and lemon meringue tart in Arena’s smaller Kogod Cradle stage.

[While not a presidential playgoer, another contemporary figure of prominence is the subject of a production at Arena this season.  Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia is the main character in John Strand’s The Originalist, which opened in the Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle at Arena on 6 March and is scheduled to close on 31 May.  Washington’s splendid actor Edward Gero (see my reports on Amadeus, 6 July 2011, and Red, 4 March 2012) portrays Scalia, who never committed to going to see the performance.  I know of no report that he has to date.]

*  *  *  *
by Peter Marks

In one of the best scenes of “Camp David,” the alternately talky and affecting new play at Arena Stage about the 13 grueling days of negotiations that led to the Middle East’s most durable peace treaty, President Jimmy Carter takes Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin on a class trip of sorts to Gettysburg, Pa.

At the site of one of America’s bloodiest battles — and Abraham Lincoln’s greatest speeches — the three leaders at last can focus on something other than their rote, self-serving agendas. It’s on this field of grief and carnage that these men who’ve known war become reflective about suffering and what they’ve learned from it. And as Begin starts to speak the words of the Gettysburg Address, and Carter joins in, and then Sadat, you can be excused for choking up at the kumbaya affirmativeness of the interlude — the emotion released at watching these figures grope their way to common ground.

Lawrence Wright’s play, receiving its world premiere at Arena’s Kreeger Theater under Molly Smith’s direction, is engrossing at these moments, because it’s not just reciting history or framing the debate; it’s also showing us how to understand why intractable adversaries might have lowered their guards, gazed at their bitterest enemy and begun to conceive of a way forward.

It’s also the sort of illuminating scene the play needs more of. Because when “Camp David” is chronicling the agonizing, two-steps-forward-one-step-back pace of geopolitical dealmaking, the drama tends to mirror actual events too authentically. It becomes a slog. And in its meticulous effort to reveal the singular achievement of those 13 days, it aspires to be more than that.

The characters with all the speaking roles in “Camp David” are the major players in the events of September 1978, when an American president went to the extraordinary length of sequestering himself with two intransigent leaders in the mountains of Maryland, with the intention of working out the details of peace, man to man to man. The actors form an impressive roll call: Richard Thomas is Carter, Ron Rifkin plays Begin, Egyptian film star Khaled Nabawy portrays Sadat and Hallie Foote is Carter’s first lady, Rosalynn.

Wright, a widely traveled, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has created for them identities that are limited in the personality department. You sense the actors’ struggle — especially in the cases of Thomas and Foote — to project something more complex about these world-class newsmakers than the one admirable attribute propelling the evening, namely their desire to bring tranquil security to the Holy Land. Perhaps some of the apparent tightness onstage had to do with the fact that on this night, the audience included the Carters, along with a slew of other well-known Washington faces, onetime Carter aides and current members of Congress and TV journalists. It can’t be relaxing, practicing that Jimmy Carter high-beam smile for Jimmy Carter. In any event, this worthwhile play cries out for some shift in its priorities. It needs to become a bit more about the people and less about the process.

You crave more, too, for Rifkin and Nabawy to chew on, for Wright to loosen his strong journalistic grip on the material, to give us more of the dramatist’s poetic view and less evidence of the astute researcher. Both actors are very good at embodying the wiliness and steel of politicians callused by suspicion and the anxiety that blinking first might hold dire consequences, but also the worry that failing to seize the moment might be just as dangerous. Smith seems content here to rely on the actors’ considerable charisma to carry the story, and that works, up to a point. Rifkin expertly calls up Begin’s stoic resolve, while Nabawy impressively summons Sadat’s canny bonhomie. Even in these private talks, however, we see little of anything but the public men. (Giving them no confidantes other than the Carters — both had entourages at Camp David — proves theatrically constricting.)

The images of these leaders, engaged in a civil battle of wills amid the trees and cabins of Walt Spangler’s rustic set, reinforce one of the more hopeful takeaways from the play: that government can be a mechanism for good. In its references to Palestinian autonomy, Jewish settlements in lands Israel conquered in the 1967 war and Israel’s quest to dwell within safe borders, the play reminds us that the world still lives with issues left unresolved at Camp David. But unlike, say, the relentlessly negative view of Washington spread by the hit Netflix series “House of Cards,” this play suggests that it’s possible in American politics to want to do something other than help oneself.

The play’s biggest problem is turning that impulse into a consistently lively 100 minutes or so of exposition. The progress of these delicate negotiations would, of course, have to be frustratingly stop and start. Still, the scenes in which Begin and Sadat are seated in patio chairs, asserting and reasserting their countries’ grievan­ces and demands, while the referee president coaxes and cajoles, become a little monotonous. It’s not only the combatants who are relieved when Foote’s Rosalynn materializes amusingly from her cabin at just the right moment with a tea service and encouraging words.

Rosalynn makes so clear she doesn’t want to intrude that we become aware of a slyly opposite intent: Her genteel attentions are part of the diplomatic ballet. If anything, more of Rosalynn is needed in the play, and not just as sympathetic ear for her idealistic, spiritual husband, who addresses God directly, asking for guidance, much in the way Tevye pleads with his maker in “Fiddler on the Roof.” It’s a device that reinforces an antique dimension to the storytelling. And it isn’t balanced nearly enough with a sense of what resources (beside religion) Carter called on to compel Begin and Sadat to remain open to a breakthrough.

As detailed here, the president’s final desperate assault on Begin’s conscience to win an agreement — if a consciously manipulative act is what it was — comes across as so ambiguous that it registers more as a sentimental gesture than a stroke of genius. Historically accurate the depiction may be, but like too many other instances in “Camp David,” it misses an opportunity to exploit dramatic potential to the fullest.

[Camp David by Lawrence Wright, directed by Molly Smith. Set, Walt Spangler; costumes, Paul Tazewell; lighting, Pat Collins; original music and sound, David Van Tieghem; projections, Jeff Sugg; wigs, Chuck LaPointe. With Will Beckstrom and Will Hayes. About 1 hour 45 minutes.]

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