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picture - The Bully PulpitTheater Review

by Oliver Conant

published May 27, 2008


The Bully Pulpit: Quality Time with Teddy Roosevelt

now playing Off Broadway at the Samuel Beckett Theater @ Theater Row

through June 29


Like most people, my awareness of Theodore Roosevelt, our twenty-sixth President, is a little dim. It’s a compound of grade school history, of “Remember the Maine!” of Rough Riders and the Great White Fleet and the lunatic in the pith helmet who keeps charging up the stairs in Arsenic and Old Lace.


Fortunately for theatergoers, Michael O. Smith is not like most people. In every little catch phrase and exclamation —Cracker Jack! By Godfrey! Look sharp! Bully! — and in every gesture, too—Smith’s knowledge of and love for his subject is made evident. The achievement is easily on a par with such feats of re-animation as Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain.     


The play begins in the “trophy room” of Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hills estate. The time is mid afternoon of October 27, 1918, TR’s birthday. Ten years out of office, TR grumbles about languishing in the “political wilderness” after the failure of his third party bid to defeat Taft and “wooden head, pudden’ head” Wilson, his derisory epithet for the sitting President, Woodrow Wilson. And when he reads an article in the paper reporting that Wilson had declined Roosevelt’s offer to serve with the Expeditionary Forces, his hurt and disappointment are palpable. The news item leads him snorting to a volume of Tennyson, and to a recitation of the poem “Ulysses,” pausing significantly over the sardonic line “as if to breathe were life.” But if the extreme nearsightedness with which he takes in newspaper and poem were not enough to suggest his unfitness for active duty, there is the arthritic twinge that grips him when he slams down the book—a tiny moment, but characteristic of Smith’s physical precision and empathy.   


Arthritic, given to fits of weakness and dizziness from the malaria contracted on one of his expeditions, the figure who confronts the audience of the Beckett theater is still far from a defeated man. Bouncing up from his tea, waving a cutlass or a rifle, Smith’s Roosevelt is a restless, energetic powerhouse in spats. If he is now too corpulent for his cavalry uniform, he can still evoke the Cuban campaign that made him a hero and got him elected Governor of New York; if his accent is Harvard patrician, he can demonstrate how he became accepted out west as more than an unreconstructed “Dude” who once cried out, during a cattle round-up, “Hasten forward there and subdue those calves!”


The cattle round-up story is one of several that Smith has Roosevelt tell on himself. That, for example, his Rough Rider uniform was “special ordered from Brooks Brothers.” And other tales, more consequential and less forgivable, to do with the near abandonment of a daughter from a first marriage, with his callousness towards the elephantine Taft, with his insatiate need, in his wife Edith’s words, to be “the bride of every wedding and the corpse of every funeral.”  It is Smith’s serviceable conceit that TR is favoring audiences with everything that was left out of his official biography, that tonight he will “tell all” and tell it in the “plain, rather blunt English” that was his pride.


The public Roosevelt is not neglected—it would in any case be futile to try to separate the public from the private man—and at several strategic points in the course of the evening TR mounts the steps to a rear platform, which with the addition of some judicious amplification crowd sounds and the use of a follow spot becomes the Bully Pulpit of the title. It is in those moments that we realize that the “plain, rather blunt English” could become the vehicle of an ugly nativism as well as the occasion for sermonic reflections on the virtues of “the strenuous life.”


The most touching moments came when Smith has Roosevelt summon invisible children to hear bedtime stories, sending each to bed with gruff Victorian dispatch, until he comes to the favorite: Quentin. The tenderness towards this favored boy makes Roosevelt’s grief over his death in World War One (all of Roosevelt’s sons served) all the harder to witness.


There are a few lapses, mostly in the writing. Smith’s unnecessary subtitle is one: “quality time” is not a phrase one can imagine escaping from TR’s teeth’s barrier. There were a few anachronisms, notably the use of “whatever” in its current sense, that marred an otherwise scrupulously maintained historical tone. I also regretted not learning more about Roosevelt the author. As a boy visiting the Natural History Museum AUTHOR was always one of the more intriguing of the chiseled epithets honoring Roosevelt, and I would have liked to have seen that side of him developed a little more. But these are quibbles.


In a “note from the playwright” included in the program, Smith states that he was greatly struck by something a New York Police Captain said at TR’s funeral to his widow: “I hope people never forget the ‘fun’ of your husband Theodore Roosevelt.”  Smith adds: the “fun” of TR is what I chose to present in The Bully Pulpit. I sincerely hope I have succeeded.”


If the laughter and good will of the appreciative audience at the Beckett is any indication, he has done exactly what he set out to do. 


Smith, who premiered his one-man tribute in Florida, has been well served by the talented team bringing his work to off-Broadway. The efficient direction is by Byam Stevens; the handsome, crowded set, all wood panels, bibelots, period furniture and mounted big game heads, is by Charlie Corcoran and the subtle lighting and sound plot by Jill Nagle and Tom Shread.    


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