Transition - Theatre Review

by Joshua Kahn

By the 2020 election there will surely be many plays, films, concept albums and all manner of artistic rebuke of Donald Trump's term in office. Ray Richmond, making his playwriting debut with the new comedy Transition, is boldly leading the charge by tackling the infamous, off-the-record meeting between President Obama and President-Elect Trump the day after the 2016 election. It's interesting that Mr. Richmond is a television critic and commentator by trade. Who better to write what is essentially a bottle episode featuring one of the most controversial TV stars of all time?

One of the most frustrating aspects of political discussions these days is how personal it all is. We each have our own theories and speculation as to just what the heck is going on in the heads of those wacky politicians. Written at breakneck speed over the past four months, the play is still brimming with raw, visceral energy, like picking at an open wound. Or perhaps like covering a wound with a bright, happy band-aid. Transition clearly presents Mr. Richmond's idea of Obama and Trump.

For an hour and a half, Trump and Obama stalk each other around the Oval Office (convincingly designed by Pete Hickok for the Lounge Theatre's tiny stage), throwing barbs, spouting one-liners and reliving the most memorable moments of the bitter campaign.

Harry S. Murphy (with convincing make-up and hair by Shelia Dorn) plays Trump as surprisingly somewhat introspective and sullen. Perhaps still recovering from his win and coming to grips with this new reality. It's a convincing and skilled comic performance, highlighting Trump's eccentricities while remaining grounded. Most of all, it's surreal to see Trump portrayed as a three-dimensional character. So often is he the subject of straight-up parody. It's a breath of fresh air to see an actor and a playwright attempt to ascribe some inner logic to a person who is the epitome of irrationality. And on that count, there is more success than failure. He's still a bit cartoonish, but how could he not be? The writing and performance is strongest when focusing on Trump's psyche and insecurities but sometimes veers a little close to mustache-twirling villainy when getting into specific political policies.

However, the true star of the show is Joshua Wolf Coleman's terrific Barack Obama. He's warm, funny, stern, confident and bolstered immeasurably by Mr. Richmond's clever interpretation of the man as a patient father goading a toddler into eating his vegetables. Ever the politician, Coleman keeps you guessing until the (hilarious) end.


Where it's clearest that Mr. Richmond is a first-time writer is in the structuring of the play. Trump and Obama's conversation is, essentially, a "greatest hits" collection of the past year in politics. One of the men will bring up a topic (say, Obamacare, gun control, misogyny), they'll riff on it for a bit, then move on to the next. The *ahem* transitions between these dialogs can be a bit contrived or rushed. Some even seem a bit out of order, going from civil policy discussion to intense personal dispute back to civil policy discussion. It leaves the emotional through-lines of the characters a little muddled but, because everyone on Earth is intimately familiar with these two men, the audience is more than capable of filling in any holes for themselves.

Most impressive is how Mr. Richmond can create a compelling story out of two characters having a conversation. There's nothing he can write about that the audience wouldn't have read in the news over the past months, so the ability to keep us engaged shows much promise for any of Mr. Richmond's future playwriting endeavors.

The show is very fresh and in the moment, rife with in-depth references to even the smallest scandals of the past year. While this elicits knowing chuckles and gasps from the audience, the obvious downside is that, once these references fade from the cultural consciousness, there might not be too much shelf life. With how much Trump's administration changes on a week-to-week basis, it's anyone's guess as to how different the political conversation will be by the time Transition closes. So... see it now!

Tickets here.

Photos by Ed Krieger.

Posted By Joshua Kahn on March 15, 2017 04:00 pm | Permalink