We first meet Trump in Barron’s White House bedroom as they chat on a Hot Wheels bedspread. Barron is played by a grown man in a blond wig using the Valley Girl dialect and exhibiting stereotypically gay mannerisms. Melania’s off-stage thick-accented voice is heard and she eventually enters. Trump demands sex and there’s the miming of penetration while they’re clothed as a secret service agent holds a pole with a crude drawing of male genitalia across them.
Then it’s on to Passover dinner at Mar-a-Lago with Ivanka and Jared Kushner with an abundance of Jewish jokes. Steve Bannon and Trump have a lengthy and salty dialogue while at a urinal. The Darth Vader-like spirit of Fred Trump appears and haunts his son. There’s a loopy Make America Great Again Rally. The conceit is that everything is reportedly being filmed by a hidden camera crew.
The one bright spot is the 15-minute segment “Without Precedent.” It’s the title of Trump’s imaginary HBO comedy special and is the highlight of Ezra Barnes’ terrific performance as Trump. Kofman’s strategy is that less is more when comes to depicting Trump and so Mr. Barnes does not attempt to replicate his vocal or physical mannerisms. Instead with his slim physique and mellow voice Barnes is more like Fred Rogers on speed.
Holding a microphone and wandering around the stage and into the audience Barnes goes off on free associative riffs with the force and cadences of a polished comedian, considerably elevating the material. A ghastly bit about Queen Elizabeth II calling to tell him that she enjoyed watching his inauguration on television so much that she began menstruating again is hilarious due to Barnes’ delivery.
Engaging and mildly heckling audience members is also a delightful facet of this segment. Seeing me sitting way in the back of the theater on a high chair and writing notes on a table, Barnes began to harangue me from a distance. “Oh! We have a critic here! Write your lies! Fake news! You remember what you heard here tonight when your write your lies!” It was a jolting, seemingly semi-improvisational tangent that it turns out is in the script. As skilled as Barnes is, he isn’t able redeem the other 80 minutes.
The lively and personable Wyatt Fenner as Barron does his best managing to keep going as the laughs are few and far between due to the cringeworthy concept of the character. Mr. Fenner fares better when his athletic and shirtless torso is on display for mirthful effect as Jared while unexpectedly wearing a wig with Hasidic curls and a yarmulke and emitting comic charm.
Stephanie Fredricks’ musical theater dynamism allows her to plow through the lame antics as Melania, a Mexican school teacher and Fred Trump with her dignity intact and talent evident.
With his mellifluous announcer’s voice and imposing presence, Chuck Montgomery provides marvelous support as the blustery unhinged Steve Bannon and as a doctor right out of a vaudeville skit from The Sunshine Boys. In both cases the production’s great wig design is crucial to the merriment.
The beaming Latonia Phipps is a wild Ivanka and cheerily brings focus to several smaller roles.
Hampered with such leaden material director Richard Caliban’s physical staging makes inspired use of the small stage with inventive tableaus and placement of the cast. Middle Eastern music and dancing are flashy interludes during scene transitions. Although the pace of the show is relatively brisk, it is slowed down by having stagehands appear to periodically rearrange props and scenery.
Lianne Arnold’s scenic design achieves a subtle sight gag. The stage is framed by a bunch of American flags on poles and a single Confederate one. Employing a black back curtain, a beaded chandelier and colorfully functional elements, Ms. Arnold creatively achieves a zany environment. The standout of Arnold’s aesthetic projection design is the hypnotic footage of Trump’s colonoscopy.
Lighting designer Kia Rogers perfectly accentuates the franticness. Props coordinator Charles Bowden has acquired an assortment of realistic and whacky objects that help. Stars and stripes underwear and vibrantly colorful garments are characteristic of Sarah Thea’s excellent costume design.
“If it bends, it’s funny; if it breaks, it isn’t” was comedy genius Larry Gelbart’s maxim that was highlighted in Woody Allen’s film Crimes and Misdemeanors. Transparent Falsehood: An American Travesty is broken and beyond repair.
Transparent Falsehood: An American Travesty (through May 19, 2018)
Picture Pending Productions
Theater 511, 511 West 54th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.transparentfalsehood.com
Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission