Our 43rd President — 43rd in the hearts of his countrymen, if the polls are to be believed — is a barn door-size target for spoofing, and Ferrell is fairly unrelenting with the slings and arrows. He even lets Bush have his own garbled say, for those of you who've gone into withdrawal lo these 17 days since David Letterman stopped airing his jaw-dropping "Great Moments in Presidential Speeches" segments.
Ferrell made up malaprops and seamlessly mixed them in with the real McCoy, in effect writing his own ticket to Broadway. He created this character in a sketch in 2000, his last season on "Saturday Night Live," and, unlike the country, the joke has improved and expanded with age —now the character is worthy of an entire Main Stem event.
"W" the ex is relieved as well, relaxed and ready to ruminate over his eight-year reign of error, throwing caution to the wind, letting the chips fall where they may on his side of the court. Hell, he has no compunction about flinging a snapshot of his penis up on the screen behind him. Beyond the good-ole-boy façade, Ferrell reminds us, is the stunted adolescent locked in comic books and "Carlito's Way" viewings.
Despite Bush's unprecedented unpopularity, Ferrell's facsimile has come to market with 98 percent of its run sold-out. At the after-party at M2 (nee Mansion) on very West 28th Street, the actor hinted that his gig may go longer than its scheduled March 15 cut-off date.
"We're kinda thinking about extending," he admitted. "It could happen . . . " The silver-streaked wig, which does a lot of work for him on stage, is "by Betty — I don't know her last name. She works at ‘Saturday Night Live.' She designed the wig."
The calculatingly uncalculated swagger that Bush affects ("In Texas, we call that walking") is nailed, and, to this native's ear, the sloppy Lone Star syntax is intact.
Not that it's an evening of concentrated caricaturing. "I think we did, consciously and unconsciously, slide into a thing where I humanize him in a way — even though it's funny and he's brash. I think that that just kinda happened in the writing."
In particular, there is one unscheduled speed-bump on this Bush-whacking expedition — when he asks for a moment of silence for the lives lost in Iraq — and the audience turns chillingly still for what seems like a small eternity. "That's our favorite part of the show," Ferrell admitted. "You just don't see it coming, and no one knows how we're going to get out of it. The reaction tonight is pretty close to what we get every night. Sometimes the audience is a little nervous and starts to laugh because they don't know which way to go, but tonight everyone was so dialed in to the moment and what we were trying to say. We've heard people felt a mixture — they feel uncomfortable, they feel sad, they are stunned that they are actually being forced to sit there. That's the most satisfying part of the whole thing."
Director Adam McKay, a longstanding friend of Ferrell's and his sometimes screenplay collaborator, defended that tough call: "We all know that Bush is funny and that he's not competent, but the fact is, because of what he did, he killed people — conservatively, 200,000 civilians in Iraq, and all these soldiers — 30,000 casualties. As much as you laugh about him, people died because of this, so we thought it would be almost disrespectful not to acknowledge that at some point."
It is McKay's Broadway debut as well, although "I've actually done theatre before. I lived in Chicago five or six years and did Second City and directed a few shows."
Script-wise, it's hard to say where he and Ferrell begin and leave off. "Basically," said McKay, "Will wrote the first draft of it, and then he and I rewrote off of that. The trickiest thing was the fact that he's doing it live every night. You can't do it chunk by chunk, as in film. The hardest thing was rewriting it and playing it as context. When we do movies, we can speak everything moment by moment, but you can't with a one-man show. He's got to remember what's going on. That was the tricky part of it. I'm so used to changing anything I want, and I couldn't in this case. But I found a method: change a little bit every night, and it tended to be comfortable."
McKay doesn't buy that they get easy laughs by preaching to the converted. "It's not like it's New York in 1968. It's New York in 2009, and there's a lot of money in this town and a lot of people who profited a lot from his tax breaks over the last eight years. There's also a lot of people pissed off about the economy. It's such a diverse town, and you got a lot of people coming from Connecticut, which has a real Republican stronghold, so we found it's a very mixed audience, actually."
He did display a certain directorial flair in picking a penis that would elicit equal measures of hoots and oooooos. "I hate to break it to most of America, but there are public-domain cocks all over the place. You go surf the Internet. There are plenty of dudes out there who don't mind having their cock used in a Broadway show. I'd love to know whose it is. He's putting himself on the line as much as anyone out there."
[flipbook] There are four other actors in this one-man show, but Ferrell and McKay neglected to give them any lines — save for Michael Delaney, who manages to get off a few choice words of heckling as an audience plant who is uprooted and forcibly ejected from the theatre by the Secret Service bruiser who is vigilantly checking out the audience from the stage while the ex-President holds forth waxing nostalgic.
The latter is played by Patrick Ferrell, the younger and taller brother of the star. His character has an arc, surprisingly enough (albeit, a wordless one). He starts out an uptight, buttoned-down, tie-adjusting robot whose screws are loosened by the lively scene-changing music. In no time at all, he's a breakdancing whirling-dervish who takes over the stage so his brother can make one of several costume changes.
"I had some of my own moves," the younger Ferrell admitted, "but I worked with Matt Williams, the choreographer, who was quite good at perfecting some of those moves. We worked out some routines, and I do improvising on my own."
Similarly, Williams' choreography helped shape Pia Glenn's bump-and-grind depiction of the after-hours Condoleezza Rice — the only thing all evening to steal focus from Ferrell. "It's really Will's show," Glenn demurred kittenishly. "I'm very fortunate to have a — I'd call it 'a hot cameo.' It really is just a few minutes — a quick in-and-out — but let me tell ya: it's one of the most rewarding things I've ever done.
"One of the biggest joys is that Will and Adam and Matt let me come up with a lot of the stuff I personally do. To be able to create some of the crazy stuff I do is great."
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Standing off to the side while the paparazzi pored over Glenn was her boyfriend. "I'm very happy to be standing back here," insisted Salman Rushdie. The famed novelist and the former "Lady of the Lake" of Spamalot (a year and a half on the original first national tour) met via that show's book writer, Eric Idle. "He's an old friend of mine," said Rushdie, "and, when Pia was in Spamalot, I went to a dinner he gave in Los Angeles and met her there. The rest is history, as they say." His current project is, of all things, a children's book. "I have an 11-year-old child, who is insisting on having a book for him, so I'm trying to do that right now."
By far, the proudest papa at the party was Lee Ferrell, basking in the Broadway debuts of both sons. "One of the things we did since they were little boys — my former wife and myself — was take them to the theatre," he said. "We have such a respect for the stage and the discipline it requires. How can anybody do eight shows a week? How can anybody cry and laugh and do all of that eight times a week?
"You know what's really fun? When I go see Will, I don't think of it as being Will. That's a compliment to his abilities. Tonight, and the other nights I've seen this piece, it's not really Will. It's George Bush. Emotionally, it's like this is the big dream — and it's a good time for New York to have a good run with the show."
The show's lead producer, Jeffrey Richards, was predictably pleased at what he hath wrought: "I thought he was terrific. He creates a genuine character. There's a real arc to what's going on, and the audiences have just responded wonderfully. I think that what's especially impressive is that he wrote the whole evening."
Richards is not through producing this season. Three more months to go before the Tony cut-off date, he may average a show a month: Blithe Spirit on March 15, Hair on March 31 and, 'tis rumored, a sudden transfer of director Robert Falls' acclaimed Chicago revival of Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms starring Brian Dennehy, Carla Gugino and Pablo Schreiber. About the latter, Richards remained tight-lipped in his cat-who-ate-the-canary fashion: "I think it's coming in. I'm looking forward to it. I think it's a terrific production. I hope somebody I know brings it in." James Lipton, host of TV's "Inside the Actors Studio," was not surprised by Ferrell's mimicry ability. "He's a very sensitive man, and his skills are limitless," Lipton offered. "He came on my show as me and interviewed me. He's done me about eight times on 'Saturday Night Live' so by now I'm sorta used to it."
Paul Rudd and Jason Segal, in town promoting their March movie "I Love You, Man," led the rather hip crowd of first-nighters. "I'd love to come back to Broadway," admitted Rudd, who was last seen on the Main Steam opposite Julia Roberts in Three Days of Rain. "I'm getting 'The Jones,' y'know. It's been too long since I've done a play. I hope to, very soon." Quizzed Segal, "Is that what you call it — 'The Jones'?"
"Knocked Up's" Segal professed to be "blown away" by Ferrell. "He's just fearless. It was an amazing show. I felt very luck to be here on opening night." Next, the towering Segal heads for England in April to be reduced to Lilliputian size for a reimagined "Gulliver's Travels" that will star Jack Black and Emily Blunt.
Other first-nighters included Jayne Atkinson and Simon Jones ( Blithe Spirits, both), Jimmy Fallon and Ana Gasteyer ("Saturday Night Live" fallout), two-time Tony nominee Eve Best (in town filming a TV series called "Nurse Jackie"), Tony-winning best buds Julie White and Cady Huffman, chef Bobby Flay and the Mrs. ( Stephanie March), Jon Hamm and Jennifer Westfeldt, Comedy Central's Demetri Martin, Brooke Shields ("Find me an original musical to do on Broadway!"), Spring Awakened but Hairless Jonathan Groff with mum, Clea Lewis, "30 Rock's" Jack McBrayer, Lucy Liu, composer Frank Wildhorn, Richard Thomas and wife, Neil Pepe and Mary McCann, Tamara Tunie, Phyllis Newman and Exit the King's Geoffrey Rush.
Last but hardly least there was "Saturday Night Live" honcho Lorne Michaels, who anointed Ferrell president-to-be nine years ago. "Will could do anything, generally, in the year 2000. When we started to do the election debate, Daryl Hammond had done Gore once or twice, so I asked Will to do Bush. I think Jim Downey's writing and Will's likability — the fact that the audience so adores Will — is why the character went over so well."