Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - February 5, 2009
Will Ferrell: You're Welcome America - A Final Night with George W. Bush Written by Will Ferrell. Directed by Adam McKay. Scenic design by Eugene Lee. Costume design by Tom Broecker. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound design by Peter Fitzgerald. Video design by Lisa Cuscuna/Chris Cronin. Choreography by Matt Williams. Flying effects by Flying by Foy. Starring Will Ferrell, with Michael Delaney, Patrick Ferrell, Pia Glenn, Adam Mucci
Even if you’ve spent most of your waking hours since January 20 trying to forget the last resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, please be open to affording him one last appearance. It doesn’t matter if you loathed everything about the Texan who spent the last eight years as the most powerful person in the world. Your bitter distaste for his swagger, his casual disregard for English, and his rocket-powered, go-it-alone bravura might even help you find additional appreciation for the roundly misunderestimated figure who has landed in a flurry of funny at the Cort.
Such is the power of Will Ferrell in You’re Welcome America: A Final Night with George W. Bush. The conceit, of the former president returning just once more to explain himself on (and, of course, in) his own terms, might not immediately appeal to folks on either side of the aisle. But if one group’s all-consuming anger at the man’s existence and another’s despondency about facing life without him would seem to eliminate most of his potential audience, Ferrell ensures relatively bipartisan laughs by delivering an evening that it is (mostly) consistently entertaining and always unpredictable.
But be forewarned, both Democrats and Republicans: Enjoyment will only come if you accept the usual caricaturish clichés before you take your seat. You’re Welcome America is, at its best and worst, a continuation of the gold-medal gimmickry that propelled Ferrell from his eerily acute impersonations of the 43rd Chief Executive on Saturday Night Live to an irreverent (and highly successful) film career. The broad strokes and populist posturing so typical of after-hours comedy are far more plentiful than penetrating psychological insight or pungent political punditry; if you want either, please look elsewhere.
If, on the other hand, you find such Rose Garden-variety mocking sufficient for occupying 90 minutes, Ferrell’s skewering of The Decider is the sharpest and most succinct we’ve seen in... well, a long time. This is because of the vague but undeniable streak of affection coursing through both Ferrell’s portrayal and his script, which makes this show far more determined than most to fairly and accurately decimate its subject. Whether this is because of the added perspective of a few weeks since Bush’s leaving office, or because Ferrell harbors an affinity for the man who helped propel him to household stardom, is never clear. But it doesn’t need to be - it's just enough to set this show apart.
So even when Ferrell skids into shots cheap enough to bust the walls at a 99-cent store (Bush’s drug use or advocacy for more arsenic in American drinking water), momentarily stalls (a rambling section about life on Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas), or derails altogether (an endless, pointless, and oddly humorless anecdote about meeting Bigfoot), there’s still a homey consistency and craft at work. Ferrell might take his greatest pleasure in slurping down merrily mangled Bushisms (families, he muses at one point, are “where wings take dream”), but at least he takes pleasure in what he’s doing. And Ferrell never, ever lets up - from his first entrance (via the flies) to the final blackout, he is his own lovable and lamentable Bush through and through.
This all makes this show, which has been directed by Adam McKay with spitfire efficiency, far more ingratiating than the bile-spitting hatefests that have often masqueraded as commentary in recent years. Ferrell masterfully marshals his own high-toned cluelessness in creating his obliquely oblivious Bush, making him every bit a victim of himself - an extra little layer of detail, so often evident in the real person, that makes Ferrell’s version harder to dismiss outright. A moment late in the evening when Bush calls for a moment of silence for those who died in the Iraq war is shockingly authentic. And, as a writer, Ferrell tosses in just enough disjointedly delirious insanity to catch you off guard: Just how overinflated are Bush’s bashing of Broadway or embracing of Christianity? And when he refers to his successor in the Oval Office as “that Tiger Woods” guy, can’t you sort of see it yourself?
Ferrell receives nominal support from his brother Patrick as a groove-seeking Secret Service agent, Michael Delaney as a shoe-throwing heckler, and - most arrestingly - Pia Glenn as a sinewy, lap-dancing Condoleezza Rice. He does not, however, need it. Nor does he require even the modest accoutrements provided by set designer Eugene Lee, projection artists Lisa Cuscuna and Chris Cronin, lighting designer Brian MacDevitt, and costume designer Tom Broecker. Ferrell not only holds the stage, but fills it - an impressive feat, especially given the way the open-air intimacy of Broadway theaters has suffocated more accomplished A-list actors than he over the past few seasons.
So expansive is Ferrell’s personality, in fact, you might find yourself wondering whether he ever could (or ever would) consider a real play rather than a burlesque as risk-free as this one. He might not see the need: Once you’ve been the president, isn’t everything a step down? So one can’t blame Farrell for wanting to squeeze every last drop of comedic juice from his most celebrated imitation before the American people’s short attention spans alight on newer targets. Alas, Ferrell will probably never be properly equipped to play President Obama. But judging by how well he holds his own here as writer and actor, he should feel free to return to Broadway to tackle just about anything - or anyone - else.