True Right, or, George and Jeb: A Cautionary Tale
We have long had a fascination with what our culture’s celebrities do behind closed doors. What nicknames do they use? What junk food do they like? Yeah but how do they talk to each other, really? These are just some of the many questions Gemma Kaneko, Brittany K. Allen, and Adin Lenahan explore in True Right, a sibling rivalry family drama featuring none other than George W. and Jeb Bush. The piece has two additional twists: one, it very closely mirrors the plot of Sam Shepard’s True West, and two, the Bush siblings are played by two women of color, that is, Kaneko and Allen themselves. The latter move nods to Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers’ Matt and Ben, a 2002 satire of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. The show is playing through Saturday at the New Ohio, as part of their annual Ice Factory Festival.
Upon entering the theater, I am met with a simple but pleasing scene: a white room with a white back wall and door in its center. Along the borders of the room is Astroturf, on which lies various objects: small plants stuck in squares of Styrofoam, a toaster, a photo frame, shiny blue wrapping paper, a flip flop, a yoga map, a cup with scissors, the board game Balderdash, a bag of Doritos, a toy truck. On a small TV on the ground stage right is a simple message: “Take a beer / leave a beer,” with an actual case of Budweiser next to it; the offer seems sincere, and the festival director Marc Weitz takes one to prove it.
As the show gets underway, George W. (Allen) and Jeb (Kaneko) discuss Jeb’s presidential campaign, George’s paintings—one of which he is currently working on downstage right—and their mother Barbara’s house, which George is house-sitting. Their rapport seems typical of older-younger brothers—Jeb can’t help showing the pecking order in his subservient demeanor, George rattles off a variety of nicknames he clearly relishes: Jebediah, Jebbers, Jebothy, Jeberoni and Cheese.
The chemistry between Allen and Kaneko is most evident when George is trying to redirect the conversation or otherwise ruffle Jeb’s feathers, which he also does often. Jeb begins with a desire to get W. to come on the campaign trail with him, but this idea is soon thwarted by an intruder to the dynamic, campaign consultant Sleve Earp (played by Lenahan). “No one likes your brother!” he finally explodes to Jeb, with George in the room. W. is understandably miffed, so he convinces Jeb to fire Sleve. Other capers transpire – a trip to Paint-A-Pot, a shared blunt, a long dance number to “Come Sail Away” by Styx…
The brothers continue a bit aimlessly in this vein until Barbara Bush (also played by Lenahan) returns, and she is not happy. Lenahan absolutely shines in this role, full of wry responses, delicate Tennessee-Williamsian arm gestures a la Blanche Dubois or Amanda Wingfield, and prone to abrupt explosions, with a red face and a fierce need to dig up the family’s dirt. Lenahan’s stage presence is a laser beam of focused intensity, as Barbara stares out at the audience as though she’s seeing her wasted away life on the distant horizon.
Barbara’s shining moment also coincides with the strongest bit of writing in the show: seeing her sons having ruined her home sends her in a tailspin about the lack of intelligence in her bloodline, the sheer enormity of all the time she’s spent on campaigns, the “Political Male” being “incapable of compliments, kindnesses, or truths.” This culminates in her telling a dejected Jeb that no, she will not be voting for him because she promised herself she would never vote for a man in any office again. She contemplates both the enormous personal sacrifices required to be President, as well as the changes she’s seen with regards to the presence of women in the workplace, and the unbridled egotism that seems to be the predominant element of the Bush legacy: “Why do all of you think you need to be president? You all think you’re qualified for that job?” She even admits her admiration for Hillary, a moment which illustrates that the show’s creators found their most nuanced aperture into the world of these characters through Barbara, not Jeb and Bush.
Because the strength of Barbara’s interruption partially has to do with the lack of stakes throughout the rest of the piece. Let’s face it: as a hero, the real-life Jeb Bush isn’t exactly an inspiration. He never seemed a desirable candidate for the 2016 election, and this show doesn’t set out to create a different world in that respect. He acts the apologetic, ingratiating little brother from the very beginning, so when he’s brought low by the end, it’s a bit anticlimactic. He doesn’t ever triumph over George, nor George over him, really, aside from small power-plays that could have applied to many a sibling rivalry.
And it’s here where it seems like the many creative ideas put into this piece did not make it very far from their launch pads. They stayed so close to Shepard’s structure from True West that they wound up following a formula that very much limited them in the realm of plot and did not do much to help explore the specific relation that is, or might be, Jeb and George. In a similar way, their realistic-enough characterization of George and Jeb seemed to limit opportunities for humor. Allen and Kaneko’s portrayals thus didn’t much seem like satire or commentary, as one got used to the humor in seeing two white men played by two women of color relatively quickly. And while Allen had a few humorous physicalizations and vocal tics as George, his jocular persona unfortunately highlighted the blandness of Kaneko’s Jeb, who was squinty, hunched over and overly timid.
With a script chock full of influences of the likes of Sam Shepard and Mindy Kaling, there seemed to be little room for a message or theme of the artists’ own. I wonder what would have resulted it they had strayed further from Shepard’s plot structure, or delved deeper into the possibilities that women of color bodies playing white male ones could have provided.
Perhaps this gestures at one issue so many comedians seem to be facing nowadays—how to make comedy out of a political world that is so damn farcical already? The lack of our country’s number one clown from this play seems to correlate with its lack of stakes: what is the point? Jeb’s loss may be sad, but in light of our current situation I find my empathy for him in short supply.
Though it didn’t quite come through for me, I was very interested by the premise: what about Jeb and George fascinated the creators? A theme that intermittently came through was that Jeb is the smarter, qualified, ethical(ish) son we should want as President, while George is the simple, arrogant, charismatic hack that we chose (and thus the one we deserve). In this light Jeb and Bush seem like doppelgängers for Hillary and Trump, and almost makes me fantasize about a different November 2016, a face-off between Hillary and Jeb. Wouldn’t that have been nice?