Bush (Guy Massey), Lehrer (Colm O’Reilly), and Kerry (Maher himself) are the only people who appear onstage in The Strangerer, which begins as a faithful recreation of the first debate of the 2004 presidential election held at the University of Miami. Lehrer enters the convocation center set (the astute design of the locale is also Maher’s work), subdues the crowd and himself, then invokes his anchor’s privilege to begin a discussion about - he ensures us - foreign policy and homeland security.
But not long after Bush and Kerry arrive, shake hands, and begin fielding questions, do other personalities make their presences known: a thousand dead American servicemen, Edward Albee, and Albert Camus. The last is perhaps the most significant as it’s his 1942 novel The Stranger, a headline hitter in recent years for being on President Bush’s 2006 summer reading roster, that serves as the spiritual basis for Maher’s play, and that helps it quickly dissolve from a sheer historical document into an irresistible existential conundrum on a global scale.
Camus’s book examines, and ponders excuses for, the reasons one ordinary man might want to murder another. Maher translates the same question into the obfuscatory language of our own world leaders and opinion-drivers, not only in terms of the mindset that might inspire Bush to invade Iraq, but also more obliquely (and imaginatively) in terms of the one that might lead him to collaborate with Kerry in killing Lehrer during the debate.
Knives, guns, arsenic, and a pillow are among Bush’s chosen implements. But tempering his ostensible insanity is a flair for the dramatic, kindled by a production of Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? he and Kerry attended the night before. The unhappy existence and fate of George and Martha’s baby unlocked in the president something that his partially reanimated dead mother (don’t ask) could not: a renewed appreciation for the dark uncertainties of living. For Kerry, all this (and everything else) floats in a half-waking haze - to him, Lehrer’s assassination is a critical non-problem demanding a decisive non-solution.
No, presenting Lehrer as a shell of a man whose life consists only of practicing reading the news, Bush as a twisted madman with an inescapably ingratiating smirk, and Kerry as literally asleep on the job doesn’t leave much room for commentarial nuance. And the lengthy explications that constitute much of the show tend to spend too much time riffing on the candidates’ political platitudes. But Maher, while never pretending to be subtle, is unwilling to overtly take sides. He implicates Republicans, Democrats, and the press alike in the disintegration of a once-ordered society, which allows him to develop a dramatic strength that shriller anti-Bush screeds from the last seven and a half years have noticeably lacked.
The play is also not bereft of comic charm, which comes less from Maher’s jumbled mélange of murky concepts than from the actors’ unwavering approaches to their roles. Maher sets a sterling example, mimicking Kerry’s fickle ostentation perfectly and conveying with eerie precision the feeling of walking through a dream. O’Reilly is quietly commanding as the emptiest of media suits, stony faced and only obligatorily authoritative as he struggles to maintain control of the imploding debate and his potentially impending demise. Massey explosively explores the comedic outer reaches of Bush’s psyche, but never delves so far into caricature that his words and actions become unbelievable.
If he did, you’d never take them seriously, which Maher demands above all else. Theorizing about the nature of life and death, for Camus, Kerry, or Bush, is one thing. But when human lives are at stake, it becomes - or at least should become - something greater. That it often doesn’t is something that, as Maher’s fuzzy-mouthed Bush might posit in a rare moment of lucidity, strangerer than fiction. In our increasingly absurdist world, however, fiction - and The Strangerer - seems even more real than it does riotous.