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Will Durst: The All-American Sport of Bipartisan Bashing

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Will Durst
Photo by Jason E. Grossman.

"I promise: no epiphanies," says Will Durst near the beginning of his one-man show at New World Stages, The All-American Sport of Bipartisan Bashing. He's right.

What he claims to mean is that this outing is no weepy, hand-wringing confessional, but rather a look at what he considers the darkening landscape of American politics. Judging from the material he presents as evidence, however, it's not at all clear he doesn't mean that you won't be inspired to form any new thoughts or opinions by anything he says. Oh, you'll undoubtedly get some hearty laughs out of his act - maybe quite a few, depending on your political persuasion - but groundbreaking comedy isn't on the menu. What Durst serves instead is a warmed-over retelling of jokes we've heard, told, and seen elected any number of times over the last couple of decades.

President George W. Bush is, as always, an easy target - "For a political comic," says Durst, "[Bush] is part of the Full Employment Act." But one does expect (or at least hope for) ribbing a bit beyond the typical "Bush is dumb and a poor speaker" oeuvre - early on, when Durst pulls a piece of paper from his pocket and begins reading a list of "Bushisms," you can't help but feel that perhaps, just perhaps, the well has run dry. On the other side of the aisle, there are bits about former President Bill Clinton's amorousness and untrustworthiness, and John Kerry's lack of personality. Stop the presses!

Even when his comedy hits a dry patch - as it does more often than it should - Durst has an unassuming, genial manner that compensates nicely for what's missing. The self-described "third-generation factory rat from Milwaukee, Wisconsin" has an avuncular, Everyman charm that lends some pleasant, down-home authenticity to his claiming he's a moderate on the ideological spectrum. (The closest director Eric Krebs comes to imposing a connecting theme is filling the stage with three colors of light - blue on house left, red on house right, and white for his position in the middle.)

But Durst's observations and occasionally agonized delivery don't suggest he'll ever rank among the masters of the form, past or present. He may quote Mark Twain and emulate Will Rogers (in a "current events" newspaper-reading near evening's end), but his act's overall bent is much sharper; this may be in keeping with our harsher, more cynical age, but it's far from as universal - or as funny. And with no pretense of the affected, stereotype-mocking arrogance that characterizes modern artists like Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, his act fails to register with any identifiable sense of comedic authority.

It doesn't help when the general air of mean-spiritedness about things expands into a full-out, theater-filling fog in the final "scene." Durst delivers an endless and vituperative, if borderline poetic, rant that catapults every conceivable negative adjective directly at the Bush administration with such barely suppressed rage that he essentially leaps the fence from commentary into agitprop. There's nothing wrong with that, though it has nothing to do with either comedy or bipartisanship - it's a detour into a different land and what might as well be a different show. (The segment is referred to in the Playbill by its climactic line: "Impeachment? Hell no. Impalement.")

The labored, desperate, go-for-broke feel of all of it didn't seem to bother most of the audience at the performance I attended - but their viscerally angry reaction is not one you'd anticipate a comic wanting or attempting to elicit from his audience. This frustrating ending to an unsatisfying show only inspired more questions than it answered, chief among them why Durst was willing to settle for pumping bile, instead of finding a way to encourage the audience to laugh through their tears of outrage.

Will Durst: The All-American Sport of Bipartisan Bashing
New World Stages / Stage 5, 340 West 50th Street Between 8th and 9th Avenues
Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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