Susan Lambert Hatem dips into history with her play “Confidence (and the Speech”), which carries a message that an American president should have forward looking, beneficial policies and be a decent leader. At the core is President Jimmy Carter in the year 1979.
The play, which starts in the present, has a very clumsy structure. April Armstrong is Professor Cynthia Cooper, and a young man named Jonathan (Zach Fifer) sits in on her class and afterward wants to interview her about the time she was a working as an assistant when Carter, scheduled to give a speech, delayed it and retreated to Camp David to further think about what to say. What could professor Cooper reveal about what happened then and her role as a woman in the male crowd?
At first reluctant, she agrees to the interview only if she can play Carter and Jonathan can play her. He agrees, and accordingly dresses in women’s clothes. The gimmick is an absurd detour, although it fits with the playwright’s apparent desire to focus on gender differences in politics. Besides, the last thing Armstrong looks like and speaks like is Jimmy Carter, emphasized at the end when the real Carter appears delivering his speech on screen, and that only stresses the silliness of the original structure.
The most interesting aspects occur during the manipulations that go on behind the scenes. Cynthia has her own ideas of what Carter should say and prepares talking points—the sort of speech she believes he should make--which gets her into a hassle. We meet noted characters out of history—for example, Ross Alden as Hamilton Jordan, Sarah Dacey Charles as Rosalynn Carter, Mark Coffin as Walter ‘Fritz’ Mondale and James Penca as Jody Powell.
There is lots of talk throughout as we try to get a handle at exactly what the author wants us to come away with. Primarily, what finally stands out, in addition to the need to solve energy and other problems, is the contrast with today’s crass White House and its occupant and the need for people to pull together for the good of the world and its future.
Not a bad message, and the cast is mostly solid. But there is an awful lot of jabbering and haziness getting there as director Hannah Ryan struggles to make all of the threads work together. At Theatre One, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Reviewed November 21, 2019.