GALLOWS HUMOR is a delicate thing. Any one who has loitered outside Mem Hall waiting for an exam to begin knows that feeling of disgust when the inevitable clown makes the usual jokes while you frantically try to remember just what in hell the War of Jenkins' Ear was. It's not the idea of comic relief that bothers you, it's those awful jokes. Black humor, more than any other type of humor, has to be very sharp to succeed at all. It must present an absurd situation in such a way that the audience can identify it as absurd; yet as a very definite part of human nature. Notable examples of this sort of humor/social commentary are Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s Cat's Cradle, and Thomas Pynchon's brilliant Gravity's Rainbow. A notable failure of this genre is Thomas Bernhard's The President, currently at the Ex.
Henny Youngman notwithstanding, there is nothing less funny than poorly written satire. Bernard's, an Austrian playwright, attempts in The President to make a political statement about decaying leaders and regimes versus the forces of anarchy and/or revolution through black humor. Unfortunately for Bernard and worse still for the audience, The President has the most boring, inane, meaningless script produced at Harvard this year. The play is simply terrible, and the production isn't much better.
The plot involves the president of a tottering republic and his wife. They have just escaped an assassination attempt by anarchists as the play opens. Killed instead are a colonel sitting next to the president and the first lady's beloved dog, who dies of a heart attack. This rather dull premise is the funniest thing about the play. The audience is treated to 80 minutes of maunderings by the protagonists, the wife detailing her hatred for her husband and for the anarchists, and the president blathering endlessly to his mistress about his problems.
The first act belongs entirely to the president's wife, played by Lizellen LaFollette. In fact, she speaks almost every line in the act, addressing either a mute servant or the bed once occupied by her puppy while trying to ignore the offstage laughter of the president and his masseur, who, we are told, spend their time telling each other jokes. LaFollette makes a Noble stab at rescuing the show, but her obvious talent is wasted. No one can deliver lines like "proceeds from the benefit will go to the Mongolian idiots" and look good. The President's wife does get the chance to enlighten the audience with the ostensible theme of the play, which, according to her, is "fear, ambition, and hate."
The president, played by Scott Malkin, appears near the end of the first act, preparing himself for the funeral of the supposedly-martyred colonel. At best, Malkin managers to be wooden, needlessly shouting out all his lines and generally giving an excellent imitation of the Robot from Lost in Space. The second act, like the first, is a monologue, this time by the president. At least Johnny Carson gets to tap dance if his jokes bomb; Making can only suffer through his pointless lines.
Since none of the others characters in the play say more than a few words, it is hard to judge the quality of the performances of the other actors mired in this hopeless plot. Tanya Luhrmann is fine as the president's mistress, saying very little but looking lovely and excruciatingly bored with her lover's meaningless ramblings.
The problem with The President, however, is not really the actors. Nor does it lie with rookie director Giselle Falkenberg, although her obvious inexperience shows through in the blocking and seemingly aimless way in which the actors deliver their lines. Given better material to work with, it seems possible that the same crew could have come up with a decent production, but the play itself is so bad that any chance of a good production is precluded. One must wonder why anyone would want to produce this play, and why it was selected by the Harvard Dramatic Club for the Ex's spring slate.
If some sort of political commentary is intended, its meaning is completely obscured by the pointless plot. The President is dead at the end of the play, yet the audience is not really sure who killed him, although we are told that the president's son, one of the anarchists, may be the killer. If so, so what? Is the point then that all repressive regimes deserve to fall, or that morons have no right to power? Or is the president a tragic figure, unable to comprehend the forces that inexorably dictate his destruction, much less his own shattered personal life? And who really cares, anyway? Certainly not the audience. The point of theater, even political theater, is to entertain first and score ideological points later. As entertainment, The President ranks up there with the reading for Ec 1010. As a political work, it is impossible to judge the play because its message, drowned in feeble attempts at black humor, is indecipherable.
Only one symbolic moments occurs in the play. At the close of the first act, anarchist demonstrators toss a brick through a window of the presidential palace, landing with a resounding thud upon the stage. This may be taken as a metaphor for The President; it is about as interesting and it lands with a similar thud.