By Tulis McCall
One person shows that are biographical are always a bid dodgy. For one thing, the author has to come up with a reason for the character onstage to be talking at all – because the character is alone. It is much easier to drop the fourth wall and talk to the audience directly. After all – everyone knows that everyone else is there. “Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground” is a perfect example.
In this play, the conceit is that President Dwight Eisenhower (John Rubinstein) is recording notes to his editor Kevin for a possible book. He is reacting to his place in the lineup in the New York Times Magazine article “Our Presidents: A Rating By 75 Historians. Great, Near Great, Average, Below Average, and Failure” He is ranked 22 and is outraged. He turns on his tape recorder that he has been using for some time recording notes for the aforementioned book. Now however, he is shooting with both barrels as he defends his presidency, his entire life, and his place in the presidential ratings lineup.
The play begins however with a excerpt recording of an Eisenhower speech (by Rubinstein, not Eisenhower):
May cooperation be the mutual aim of those who, under our Constitution, hold to differing political faiths, so that all may work for the good of our beloved country. The strength of free people lies in unity; their danger, in discord….For this truth must be clear before us: whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world must first come to pass in the heart of America.
So before the lights come up we know where we are headed. This will be part hallowed Eisenhower ground and part condemnation of Trump while avoiding the mention of his name.
Eisenhower was a country boy brought up in a family of boys who were trained by their mother to do what ought to be done without having to be told how to do it. Honor, decency, respect were the core of their lives. Eisenhower pitched in with vigor and fell in love with reading in spite of the fact that he had no hopes of going to college – until he was put wise to the fact that a position at West Point or Annapolis was possible if he could get a recommendation from his Congressional Representative. Education would be free. He did and it was. And he was off into history.
What is made clear is that Eisenhower bounced from pillar to post for most of his life, wanting to advance but never having a destination in mind. Circumstances guided and buoyed him right up until he was put in a political dilemma that led him to run for the Presidency that he never wanted. Once there, however, he caught on fast and was able to accomplish things that went unnoticed for a long time: the Interstate Highway System; desegregating the armed forces – all of them; and perhaps his most quoted lines: … you take on the fools who think war should be the first resort, not the last–and then add the fellas for whom bombs and guns are their paycheck–that military-industrial complex will come down on you like a sledgehammer.
With the exception of his frustration with Senator Robert Taft who opposed NATO, the entire production is on an even keel. Rubinstein does his best to engage us, and he does. He gives 100% and then some. The material itself, however, does not stand up under the pressure of a stage light. While we walk away having leaned more about Eisenhower than most of us ever knew, we do not end up knowing much about the man. This is a case of telling us rather than showing us. This play would make a very good lecture.
Costume-wise – Rubinstein is wearing the most ill-fitting jacket that more or less clashes with his trousers for all of the first act. Why is a man at home wearing a jacket, and such an eyesore? In the second act he has changed into sort of military style cardigan, which would have worked just fine in the first act. $20 says it was out getting dry cleaned and they had to substitute for the first act. PS Eisenhower did not wear a wedding ring like the one Rubinstein is sporting. Set-wise, Eisenhower pulls back the upstage curtain to reveal a window looking out at his Gettysburg farm. That window had to be 8’x30′. My theatre companion pointed out to me that no window that size exists. And what about that “hot” coffee from a percolator not plugged in? Nit picking perhaps – but Eisenhower of all people understood the importance of attention to detail.
Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground by Richard Hellesen and directed by Peter Ellenstein.
WITH John Rubinstein
Scenic design by Michael Deegan and Sarah Conly; costume consultation by Sarah Conly; lighting design by Esquire Jauchem; and projection and sound design by Joe Huppert
Presented by The New Los Angeles Repertory Company (Peter Ellenstein, Producing Artistic Director) will present the seven-week Off-Broadway engagement, June 13 through July 30, at Theatre at St. Clements (423 W. 46th Street, NYC). For further information, visit EisenhowerThePlay.com.