Critic's Notebook: ‘All the President’s Men?’ Is a Starry C-Span Supercut with Bite


Here, thanks to the Public’s cachet, you had an all-star cast, which also included Raúl Esparza, Linda Emond, Denis O’Hare, Joe Morton, Bill Irwin and David Remnick, editor in chief of The New Yorker. These performers gave the event interest and a perverse kind of glamour. Sometimes it was a little worrying to see such charismatic actors utter the words of these politicians. To hear Mr. Esparza as Senator Marco Rubio is to think, “Wow, I miss Raúl Esparza in musicals.” And then, “Oh my god, do I like Marco Rubio now?”

That said, some senators are now celebrities in their own right, and when Ms. Burstyn appeared, it was hard to tell if the entrance applause was for her or for Senator Elizabeth Warren or both. Same with the acerbic Bernie Sanders of Mr. Rifkin.

Mr. Remnick, one of the president’s fiercest news-media critics, acquitted himself just fine as Senators Al Franken and Thomas R. Carper, although actors like Mr. Esparza and Ivan Hernandez gave more distinct shading to their multiple roles. Mr. O’Hare delighted in his portrayals as a fawning Senator Orrin G. Hatch and a smart-mouthed Senator Lindsey Graham.

Mr. Baldwin, a commanding presence and a practiced impersonator, was kind enough to let his own silver coif stand in for Mr. Tillerson’s, and David Costabile used his “Billions” experience to offer Mr. Price’s half-answers to questions about his finances.


The cast of “All the President’s Men?” at Town Hall.

Ian Douglas for The New York Times

On the Town Hall stage, which was fitted with tables draped in red cloth and two abashed-looking American flags, the first three scenes were trimly organized. Mr. Tillerson’s hearing spotlighted his ties to Russia. Mr. Price’s focused on a number of questionable stock deals, and Mr. Pruitt’s examined his ties to the fossil fuel industry.

But the fourth scene, the confirmation hearing of Mr. Sessions, was a trickier affair. Mr. Sessions, back in the news with the firing of James B. Comey as F.B.I. director, is a man with a long career of public service and a grab bag of complicating stances. His sequence was more diffuse, with part of the hearing devoted to questioning his closeness to President Trump and another part discussing his views on immigration and abortion rights.

While the other nominees dodged uncomfortable questions, Mr. Sessions mostly answered them. He owned up, with some qualifying, to past controversial statements, which is integrity of a kind. It was also surprising to learn that he and Senator Richard J. Durbin, a Democrat, both pushed for passage of the Fair Sentencing Act, which softened penalties for crack cocaine possession.

Details like these helped to make the real Mr. Sessions something other than a cartoon villain — or the malign elf he resembles — even while accentuating his views on civil liberties. The scene ended with a withering speech in which Senator Dianne Feinstein (Ms. Taylor) implacably detailed what she considered Mr. Sessions’s grave unsuitability for the job as attorney general.

Verbatim theater of the kind that Mr. Kent practices is rigorous in its form. Only actual words are quoted, typically in the order they were spoken. Of course, C-Span doesn’t become drama without intervention, so the very act of editing means that choices of emphasis and exclusion have been made. Actors make other choices: It’s unlikely that the real Mr. Tillerson paused for a laugh after championing his honesty by saying, “You are aware of my longstanding involvement with the Boy Scouts of America.”

In performance, the play is respectful of the confirmation process itself and the level of discourse it encourages (at least among the lawmakers), even as it stresses the profound, almost comical impropriety of the nominees’ assuming the positions they hold. “This is the best of America here,” Senator Bob Corker (Mr. Irwin) said as he opened the first hearing. Really?

Yet “All the President’s Men?” is not really a crusading piece, like some of Mr. Kent’s previous work, chiefly the 2004 “Guantánamo.” It’s closer to that Marx maxim that history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce. But what does it achieve?

For Democrats, it will probably affirm fears, frustrations and the opinion nicely articulated by my upper-chamber crush, Senator Christopher S. Murphy (Yul Vazquez): “This whole administration is starting to look like a bit of a get-rich-quick scheme.” As for Republicans, well, there didn’t seem to be many in attendance on Thursday night. (All members of Congress and the administration were invited, but those who did attend weren’t announcing it.)

By turning recent events into theater, with appealing actors and familiar story structures, “All the President’s Men?” makes the hearings more accessible, but also safer and somewhat distant. This is welcome. Who wants to see a play that yanks the scab from unhealed wounds?

Yet the night was ultimately engrossing, not galvanizing. It did not thrust you back out onto the street chanting, “Strike! Strike! Strike!” Or in this case, “Impeach! Impeach! Impeach!” When “All the President’s Men?” ended after nearly three hours, the anti-fascist group members were still outside chanting. Some people took leaflets. Some didn’t. No one seemed to join their cry.

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