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Theatre Review: “The Debate” brings the heat, but lacks coherence

There was no telling what Monday night’s performance of The Debate would behold; even days later, processing exactly what this piece means for its audience of more than 84 million, I find it hard to reduce to any key phrase or unifying idea. Perhaps that was what resonated the most profoundly: there is no unity, or clarity, in this fractured world.

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The play opened with a cordial, though forced, handshake between the two leading actors, Hillary Clinton (recently seen as “Secretary of State” and “First Lady”) and her antagonist, Donald Trump (from “The Apprentice”). The actors assumed their places at two separate podiums on stage, where they planted themselves for the rest of the show. Lester Holt (Director, seen on “NBC Nightly News”) began by offering a few utterly unnecessary remarks that were promptly ignored, and then The Debate began. Divided into three acts: Achieving Prosperity, America’s Direction, and Securing America, this play was a whirlwind of nonsense and jargon, lacking any coherent plot or thematic meaning, but swimming with soundbites and snippets of glorious one-liners and more than a few made up words.

Trump started strong, despite the actor clearly suffering from a cold, or at least some pesky congestion. Sniffles aside, soon into this play Trump’s edge dulls and all he has left is bark sans bite. Clinton, on the other hand, began with subtly and grace; as she rose to the lead she became more brazen and at times nearly jovial. The play ended abruptly, with no clear climax and nary a resolution in sight. After witnessing such political wreckage with no optimistic finish or even any hope for the redemption of our future, I was left wondering what could possibly be done to remedy these terrible times. The Debate certainly offered no answers.

Clinton’s performance was consistently riveting; she offered an engaged portrait of a woman on the verge of great success. Trump was equally successful in his portrayal of an arrogant prick, interrupting Clinton 26 times in the first 25 minutes. The inherent misogyny present in Trump’s dialogue helped to villainize him while allying a sympathetic audience to Clinton’s defense. Lester Holt, who loosely directed this production, made a few fleeting cameos, though most often I found that I had forgotten about him entirely.

Clinton was costumed in a bright red getup while Trump wore a more muted suit and tie, ironically contrasting with their dual personalities: Clinton as reserved and occasionally stoic, Trump as bombastic and ridiculous. The writing seemed to paint a stark portrait of each, with not much room for character development or any substantial arc. At times I wondered if perhaps Trump was off-script, improvising lines that the playwright most likely wrote with more clarity and specificity. Also lacking in clarity was the work of director Lester Holt. It was as if he did absolutely nothing at all to benefit this production, and in fact, his lack of involvement weakened the play dramatically. I frequently found myself wishing for more structured conversation, and of course a little more blocking. How long can we expect two people to stand behind a podium, shouting and waving their arms emphatically? Apparently, a little over 90 minutes.

Clinton: “I had a feeling by the end of this evening that I’d be blamed for everything.”
Trump: “Why not?”

One profound moment, which were few and far between, was when Clinton proudly emphasized her preparation for the role of President. The audience was stirred to respond with cheers of affirmation, despite Holt’s insistence that audience participation was not allowed. Most theaters can only dream of the kind of vocal response this production ensued, and yet there was a staunch and often stifling effort to limit any measure of overt reaction. Perhaps this play would benefit from taking a clear look at what each character is trying to do to the audience, allowing for more truthful storytelling and a firmer ground in reality. Facts seemed irrelevant during The Debate, leaving the audience guessing as to what is true in the world of this play. Each character seemed to have her or his own opinion.

The Debate was an oftentimes painful testament to the horrors of political power and the grueling race to the top. Jargon aside, when the flippant insults and meme-able reaction gifs fall away, what we have left are two humans fighting to the death, using whatever tools they have at their disposal. For Clinton, those tools are intelligence, experience, and poise. For Trump they are threats, misogyny, and – to one-up the man himself – braggadociousness. When the play is done, the audience is left asking, what kind of country do I want to live in, and who do I want at the helm? One can only hope we choose her wisely.


The Debate, Directed by Lester Holt. Presented by NBC. This performance runs through November 8th, 2016.

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