I don’t know where I was or what I was doing on July 15, 1979; 17 years old and doubtlessly obsessed with myself, I was unaware that President Jimmy Carter was giving an unprecedentedly honest and urgent “Crisis of Confidence” speech that is still talked about today. I don’t know whether my parents watched it, although if they did I’m certain their staunchly Republican viewpoints saw only criticism, a standpoint I likely aped in the absence of the free thinking that would not come until later in college.
Confidence (and the Speech), a new play by Susan Lambert Hatem, sets out to tell us how the days at Camp David leading up to the speech might have played out, through the eyes and imagination of college professor Cynthia Cooper (April Armstrong), then a 22-year-old intern. Cooper tells us the story, herself playing the role of the president and charging the mysterious young man who shows up in her classroom, Jonathan (Zach Fifer) to play her.
Political plots can be dry as toast. Hatem attempts to spice things up by crossing the genders of the actors playing Carter and young Cynthia; the convention is an interesting choice although it really doesn’t add any new light to the characters or story and is sometimes distracting. Not to worry, though, the script is smart, imaginative, humorous at the right times and keeps its audience interested.
The character of Professor Cynthia Cooper is described as “a little beaten down”, and Armstrong’s portrayal of her is appropriately in line with that. However, when she switches over to the role of Jimmy Carter, she doesn’t always lift the character to the quiet and powerful strength that is called for in the president. Her pacing sometimes seems rushed and lacking in confidence. She has her shining moments, however, with some of the excellent dialogue:
We live much better lives than 100 years ago, 40 years ago. And still, it’s not enough. We consume everything at an unprecedented rate. But we’re not happy. People feel unfulfilled. Because we cannot fill that hole with stuff. What am I supposed to tell them? ‘We’re all fine. Just keep buying things, divorcing, worrying about your own happiness over others. Keep consuming. Fill your empty lives with unnecessary plastic objects. Drive more. Buy more.’ What kind of President would I be if I said something like that?
A two-term president.
Some of Armstrong’s best moments are those with Sarah Dacey Charles, who portrays wife Rosalynn Carter. Charles’ performance has just the right amount of southern charm, wit and wisdom that one would expect from the First Lady. Her rapport with Cooper truly makes a person smile, and the grace and humility she demonstrates with young Cynthia is touching.
Strong women portrayals continue with that of Abigail Ludroff as Sarah Weddington, assistant to the President. Although Weddington was the lawyer who argued Roe v. Wade, her role in this piece is small, yet Ludroff brings sincerity and earnestness to her few lines in this otherwise important role.
Undercurrents in this effective script pertaining to women’s rights and global warming keep the story percolating.
If we (women) don’t support each other, how will any of us be able to become real leaders? They (men) can disagree on say, a thousand things, but no one questions their right to be in the room. For men, mistakes are a badge of courage. Every time we make a mistake, it’s proof we have overstepped, spoken too soon, too much, too loudly. But they couldn’t do what they do without us. They literally can’t exist. I think about that sometimes. But mostly, I just put my head down and do the work.
As young Cynthia, Zach Fifer plays the flustered, shy young woman with somewhat broad strokes, but when the script calls for strength and determination, he rises to the occasion and gives the part its necessary passion and honesty, especially when being bullied by a disheveled Pat Caddell, pollster to the President, shrewdly played with blustery and forceful arrogance by Stephen Stout:
Yes, we need to consume less. But what if we need to just consume… smarter? If this speech, this energy crisis, is our “moon shot,” shouldn’t it be about actually doing something big, like developing alternative energy sources? What if we can be the first country to develop a real solution. A new energy, using the best and brightest of America – all of us – to do so?
You think people would care? How do you know what people care about? Just because you care about it, doesn’t mean it’s statistically significant. Don’t extrapolate personal feelings for actual data. I know what people care about.
I have an opinion. And the President is here listening to opinions. Of real people. I’m a real person.
You’re not here as a real person. You’re here as an intern. To learn the job. …It’s not your job to write up memos for the President. You’re here to type. And coffee. That’s what I came to ask for. We need coffee!
Mark Coffin’s part as Vice President Mondale is small, but he gives the role a thoughtful dignity and noble truth.
The actors playing Carter’s “Georgia Mafia” seem interchangeable at first, but as their parts warm up, so do they, and their banter is quick and lively. Ross Alden plays the role of Hamilton Jordan with a wry and edgy sense of humor (“You know how many islands there are in the Indian Ocean? Like Australia, for instance?”). James Penca’s Jody Powell is impatient, incredulous and sardonic (“They’re bumping The Waltons! He can’t just cancel the speech!”), catching smokes when he can. Imran Sheikh as Hendrick “Rick” Hertzberg is blunt, bold and brazen (“Pat has never met a poll he didn’t like. It’s people he has issues with.”).
Given the locale and setting, there is no real opportunity for production flash; nevertheless, the costume design by Vanessa Leuck is suitably in line with the period and its characters, and Brittany Vasta’s scenic design is efficient and minimal. The lighting design by Christina Watanabe complements stage movement and scene changes well.
The production lacks some polish, but the cast’s commitment to their parts, as well as the direction by Hannah Ryan, improves as the play progresses. The script and actors both lay firm roots into the polemical ground of politics, equal rights and global warming, ever reminding us of the complex relationship America has with its presidents and the good that some of them have tried to leave behind.
You know, sometimes at night, when I leave work, and I ride by the front of the White House, with all the lights on it. And I know a good man is president now… It’s so damn beautiful. I’m a short order cook for a man who is trying to make a better America. And if he wants eggs, we’re making him a goddamn omelette.
Confidence (and the Speech) (through December 7, 2019)
Theatre One at Theatre Row, 410 W 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets call TeleCharge at 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.confidenceandthespeech.com
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission