February 7, 2009

"You're Welcome America. A Final Night With George W Bush" is Funny But Far Too Polite

It probably wasn’t intentional but the Cort Theatre, home for the next five weeks to You’re Welcome America. A Final Night With George W Bush, comedian Will Ferrell’s genial send-up of the Bush presidency, is just half a block away from the headquarters of Fox News, perhaps the only place in Manhattan where people are actually lamenting the end of the Bush presidency.

I doubt you’ll find many Fox staffers in the Cort audience but there’s nothing really mean-spirited about the show, a reprise and extension of the sketches Ferrell did on “Saturday Night Live” before he left to star in such endearingly goofy movie comedies as “Elf,” “Anchorman” and “Blades of Glory.” In fact, Ferrell is such a likeable guy that I, who literally wept when Bush was re-elected in 2004, found myself thinking that maybe the man who is the worst president in the nation’s history may not have been all that bad.

Which bothers me a little and makes me wonder why we Americans, who so revere our freedom of expression, express so little political dissent in our theater. Are today’s playwrights just too unconcerned with the sad state of our current affairs? Are today’s producers just too reluctant to put on works that deal with them? Are today’s theatergoers just too uninterested in seeing shows like that? If it weren’t for the folks down at the Culture Project there would hardly be any serious examination of American politics on a New York stage.

The Brits, as anyone who has seen the “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher” number in Billy Elliot (or seen any number of David Hare plays) knows, are less squeamish about taking on their leaders. And this week I read an article about how even Russian playwrights are going after the tsar-like Vladimir Putin (click here to read it). But when you look around at the plays scheduled to open on and off-Broadway this spring, nearly all deal with interpersonal relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, old friends. Important stuff sure, but what about the financial crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, global warming?

Ferrell and his longtime collaborator Adam McKay, who co-wrote and directed the show, do throw some barbs about Bush’s bungled response to Hurricane Katrina and mishandling of the Iraq war into their 90-minute show. But You’re Welcome America is mainly a revue of Bush bloopers—the endless malapropisms, the Mission Accomplished flight suit prematurely celebrating victory in Iraq, the attempted exit through a stuck door at a summit meeting in China—leavened with the comedians’ trademark loony humor. There are funny bits about Barbara Bush, Condi Rice and Dubya’s delight in bestowing silly nicknames as well as frat-boy jokes about penises, “fags” and pole dancing.

The audience the night my buddy Bill and I saw the show was filled with Ferrell lovers and Bush haters who lapped up all of it. The run is pretty much sold out but even if you can’t get a ticket, you can catch the show when HBO airs the final performance on March 14.

You’re Welcome America
is funny and
I had a good time. Unless you’re related to Dick Cheney you probably will too. But, in the end, I can’t help thinking about the mess the real George W. Bush has left us in. And that’s no laughing matter.

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