Hail to the Chiefs: “Five Presidents” at Bay Street Theater

The POTUS quintet. Photo by Lenny Stucker.

The POTUS quintet. Photo by Lenny Stucker.

I don’t know how much access Emmy-winning writer Rick Cleveland has had to the White House during his time with “The West Wing” and “House of Cards” but I I do believe that he definitely has some insight into what happens behind closed doors.

He’s taken the idea to a satisfying end in “Five Presidents,” now staging at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Filling in the blanks at a funeral gathering for Richard Nixon, Cleveland has provided an excellent setup and insightful dialogue about what might’ve happened when Pass Key (Gerald Ford), Deacon (Jimmy Carter), Rawhide (Ronald Reagan), Timberwolf (George H.W. Bush) and Eagle (Bill Clinton) got together in one room. Capturing the personalities of each of these leaders of the free world, at least as the public understands them to be, he has created an affectionate and amusing scenario where Ford (whose wife founded the Betty Ford Center in case you’ve forgotten) mixes the cocktails and Clinton is a practically a wide-eyed schoolboy.

I liked the show, directed by Mark Clements, quite a lot. The words were witty and thought-provoking and the actors were well-cast in their roles.

John Bolger’s halting, frustrated and sometimes foul-mouthed Gerald Ford got the most stage time and a large portion of the great lines. Still bitter about having to pardon his successor, he’s caustic and quick about many of his fellow former leaders.

Martin L’Herault was absolutely superb as Carter. Inhabiting the role, his portrayal of this thoughtful and GOOD man was spot-on. It’s the kind of performance that can often be overlooked because it’s not flashy but let me you, as a long-ago student of a student of Uta Hagen, I find this kind of work to be among the best of the best on the stage.

Mark Jacoby got Bush senior down to a tee. His mimicry, from facial expressions and hand gestures, down to the intonation and inflection, was quite convincing.

Steven Sheridan got a heck of an opportunity in playing Reagan, and he didn’t squander a minute. It was a tough role in that it was set in the time that the beloved President was just starting to succumb to the early stages of Alzheimers, but the actor made the most of it. And he most definitely looked the part.

Brit Whittle had to have had the most fun. How could he not in playing Clinton. I really, really, really enjoyed and appreciated his approach to our nation’s most charismatic former leader. Just like has been said of the famously charming Clinton, Brit could’ve sold ice to the eskimos and oil to the Saudis.

Lastly, Reese Madigan didn’t have quite as much stage time as Special Agent Michael Kirby but he did serve well.

“Five Presidents” paints an incisive and imminently entertaining portrait of the human side of history. And it’s darn good storytelling to boot. Go see it. You’ll be glad you did.

For tickets and additional information, visit www.baystreet.org or call the box office at 631-725-9500.

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