Last night Kish and I and the Unkempt Guy and his lovely wife caught The Final Table at the Studio Theater 2 at the Riffe Center. In the interests of full and fair disclosure, I should note at the outset that I know and like Herb Brown, the author of the play, so you can take my comments with an appropriate grain of salt — but we had a great evening and I’d recommend the play to anybody who likes politics and is willing to see 20th century American historical figures presented from a unique, unvarnished perspective.
First, a quick nod to the theater. Last night was the first time I’ve been to a show at Studio Theater 2, and it is a wonderful, intimate venue. The theater is in the round and seats less than 200 people. We sat in the very last row and still we were close enough to see the actors and their facial expressions and hear the dialogue clearly. It’s a perfect setting for a play like this, where the ultimate goal is get the audience thinking about the characters and the humanity behind their historical reputations.
The plot is that five American presidents — in order of appearance, Lyndon Johnson, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Warren Harding, and Richard Nixon — arrive from their own individual purgatorial settings to a room furnished only with a poker table and a dealer/protaganist who happens to be the Muse of History. They are there to play poker for their immortal souls, at the whim of God and the Angel Gabriel, with the loser to be cast into the fiery pits of hell. Obviously, it is a tantalizing and thought-provoking premise.
If you like history, as I do, you can’t help but be drawn in by the concept of the play, and Herb Brown does a good job of drawing out the issues based on the historical record. Why would Dwight Eisenhower be put into a purgatorial cell that has a racial element? How would Harry Truman interact with the man who defeated him? Who would ultimately take a leadership role in this cast of Presidents and position them for an ultimate resolution? And — perhaps most tantalizing at all — how would Richard Nixon play poker?
I won’t spoil the show, but suffice it to say that the play is funny, interesting, and far more vulgar than you would expect if your notion of American presidents is limited to the sanitized and marbleized versions you get in American history class. The acting is quite good across the board, but I must give special kudos to Jon Putnam, who made Nixon a funny and curiously sympathetic and pathetic figure — not an easy assignment by any measure — and Ralph Scott, who was a titanic and appalling Lyndon Johnson.
The Final Table has drawn such good crowds that it’s run has been extended though May 2. Catch it if you can!