part of the
Midtown International Theatre Festival
You’ve undoubtedly heard how Barack and Michelle Obama are redefining personality and style for residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. His crisp suits, her everyday avant-garde dresses, and their joint embodiment of untraditional glamour have earned them plenty of pictorial-oriented press. And for the first few minutes of Fuel, Joe Beck’s political would-be comedy at the June Havoc Theatre as part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival, this is brought to clarion life by performers Michael Blair and Julia Kwamya. Svelte, sunny, and oh so cognizant of their allure, the duo looks and behaves every bit the First Couple — even down to Michelle’s icy-suave, face-spreading smile and Barack’s halting speech delivery and chronically upturned chin. What fascinating, detailed, and accurate impressions these are.
Focusing on these is the only way to derive even momentary pleasure from what is otherwise as woebegone and threadbare as the Democratic half of the House of Representatives in the wake of the midterm elections. The play purports to tell the story of how the current president plans to reduce rapidly escalating gasoline prices by sending two former presidents, Bill Clinton (Charles Uffelman) and George W. Bush (Patrick Murney), to a major event in Texas, right after an oil-rig fire starts stifling American petroleum production. But it’s actually just the latest in an extremely tired line of excuses for ragging on Bush, and executed without the flair or even garden-variety common sense that might make it even accidentally entertaining.
On the trip, Bush whines incessantly about wanting a third term in the White House, chews out his psychologist, and spends many of his spare moments, including at the urinal, talking to a Ronald Reagan Pez dispenser. After yelling at illegal immigrants and teenagers, who then steal his money, Bush manages to get the entire state of Texas angry at him before he parachutes out of an airplane, kills an Arab sheik, and winds up in the loony bin. Meanwhile, Clinton remains cool and collected, with “satire” on his nature stretching not much further than his penchant for falling asleep on the road trip and hankering after waitresses and secretaries. The subplot involving Laura Bush (Lindsay Bernstein) and Hillary Clinton (Almog Pail) joining Michelle for promoting healthy eating is even more nonsensical than the Bush-Clinton part of the story. (Why do they start their campaign on an offshore drilling platform?)
At the performance I attended, the actors were routinely game but lifeless, capturing neither the sound nor the spirit of any of these people. Worse, their constantly confused, stammering readings suggested they were all either unable to remember their lines, or were making them up as they went along. The former might absolve director Terrence Montgomery of some responsibility for the play’s haphazard, amateurish staging and the surfeit of shouting in practically every scene; the latter might get Beck off the hook for a one-dimensional parody of presidential posturing that says nothing memorable (or even comprehensible) about anything.
What we get instead are pallid jokes about Bush’s intelligence and even maladies both mental (one Secret Service agent just can’t stop stuttering) and medical (another speaks with a cadence that suggests she suffers from either Down syndrome, tongue cancer, or both). Are these kinds of things genuinely supposed to be funny? Well, they aren’t. Aside from making you count every single minute of the show’s running time (an unthinkable 67), they also draw your attention to real missed opportunity with Fuel: If anything could be the subject of wall-shattering comedy, it’s American energy policy.
Fuel: A Presidential Fantasy