Mockery and comedy are natural palliatives for the horror and loathing spawned by the Donald Trump kakistocracy. For every shudder, we seem to need a laugh. Gil Kofman’s Transparent Falsehood: An American Travesty steers a third course, seeking to illuminate both the mind of Trump himself and the twisted but very human appeal his message had, and has for so many irate Americans.
It succeeds fitfully. Parts of the show hit a nerve, parts are laugh-out-loud funny. But too much of it lapses into tedium, notwithstanding powerful seriocomic performances and sharp technical production.
The scenes take inventive approaches to well-known aspects of the Trump persona and phenomenon. We see the contrast between the apparent coldness of his marriage and the creepy warmth of his feelings towards his daughter Ivanka. We witness Trump’s obsessive need for attention as he goes so far as to conjure an imaginary everpresent camera crew. An extended men’s-room scene with Steve Bannon dramatizes Trump’s adolescent preoccupation with the physical attributes of manhood. The show even touches on antisemitism and Holocaust denial.
It also shows us a gentler side. Trump helps, or tries to help, his young son Barron deal with being bullied. On a visit to his doctor he recalls his fraught relationship with his father. He enjoys a seder at Mar-a-Lago with Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner (though Kofman and director Richard Caliban don’t seem to know that the extra cup of wine is left for Elijah, not for the Messiah. One can hardly imagine the real Kushner making such a mistake, or allowing it to go uncorrected).
By choosing not to do an impression of Trump’s mien or mode of speaking, the team of Kofman, director Richard Caliban, and actor Ezra Barnes focus on the inner Trump, or at least a plausible conception thereof. Melania (Stephanie Fredricks), Ivanka (Latonia Phipps), and Barron (Wyatt Fenner, who also plays Jared) are portrayed with comic acuity, while Bannon gets a rather thoughtful depiction from Chuck Montgomery. Phipps’s vivid puppet depictions of Barron’s classmates is a highlight, Fredricks’s long-suffering Melania won me over (until she wore me out), and Fenner’s namby-pamby Barron is a hoot.
But all the onstage talent in the West Wing can’t make saggy material taut. The scenes suffer from the same problem that have afflicted so much of the sketch comedy of Saturday Night Live for so many years: not knowing how to focus or when to stop.
Interestingly, the one scene where all this too-muchness works is a very long portrayal of a live HBO special performed by a fired-up but rambling Trump. As he careens from topic to unrelated topic (indeed “topic” almost seems too strong a word), initial boredom coalesces into a realization that we’re seeing a distillation of the real Trump charisma. Inspired by spotting a critic in the audience, he bloviates against the press and gradually reveals the “stable genius” of Trump’s genius.
In contrast, a closing scene in which the ghost of Trump’s father pays him a visit goes nowhere. Intended to illuminate a deep-rooted motivation behind Trump’s constant craving for approval, it runs rapidly out of energy, comical or otherwise, ending the evening on a sour note.
The falsehoods may be transparent, but these spectacles are the wrong prescription—the view is blurry. Transparent Falsehood is a smart idea sharply staged and well played, with original music by Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth. But more often than not it misses the clarity it seeks. It’s at Theater 511 in Manhattan. Tickets are available online or by calling 212-352-3101.