With a pace akin to five-dozen Minute Waltzes playing back-to-back, The President burns its way along a hilarious path that nearly amputates the funny bone even as every social evil with pillory is mightily skewered.
The perfect comedic storm of Ferenc Molnár’s madcap script (and in its première adaptation by Morwyn Brebner where only the North American references miss the mark), Blair Williams’ ferociously funny direction and an ensemble with more depth on the bench than the entire National League combine to delight all comers.
In a bravura performance of words, wiliness and “oil” (lubricating the uncertain egos and penchant towards wimpiness of all those beneath him), Lorne Kennedy as President Norrison lifts the show from his opening machine-gun salvo of orders and hardly relents until his final accusatory stare into the wildly amused crowd of the ashamed.
The conniving autocratic CEO with a bust of Napoleon his silent adviser and companion (“He was a genius until he stopped being one.”), must employ all his cash, favours owed and ability to bully with a smile to transform Communist and taxi driver Tony Foot (Jeff Meadows provides a metamorphosis that gets every laugh but also cashes in his soul and principles with equally human conviction) into instant capitalist and ambassador, Anton von Schottenberg. And he’s only got an hour to do so.
This “code red” emergency is of his own making. Lydia (with charming gush, lithe physique and a delivery reminiscent of Georgette of The Mary Tyler Moore Show fame, Chilina Kennedy is perfectly cast), instead of studying large books for long hours at the library while under Norrison’s guardianship, met, bedded and married Foot who is so enamoured with her physical charms that he’d do anything for another roll in the hay with his bride and mother-to-be.
Lydia’s parents are Iowans and the “King [and Queen] of the soybean.” With billions at their disposal, Norrison happily agrees to look after their only daughter in hopes of sealing a deal that would be the salvation of his corporate empire after they return from a facelift vacation.
It’s Pygmalion without the language makeover.
The clothes make the man. Soon dirty garments are discarded and the tailor (Peter Millard) is measuring while Dr. Faber (Guy Bannerman) searches for any kind of ailment that could result in a medical certificate precluding any sort of work. (“Couldn’t he have pneumonia?”) Here’s just one example of Molnár’s satiric abilities: Foot needs a plausible excuse to quit his menial work so a professional is summoned and ordered not to leave until the appropriate paperwork has been signed (Foot is also forced to sign a letter of resignation from the Communist party even though under Lydia’s sensual influence he’s stopped attending the meetings and only “gets the newsletter”).
Apart from purchasing an ambassadorship from a slimy government official, an appointment to a job must be secured. Norrison moves with brutal speed and decisiveness: The board of directors is summoned (William Vickers as the height-challenged, non-smoking director draws the first side-splitter by merely lowering his chair!) and a suggestion to hire the unknown is made in no uncertain terms (a timely prequel to the Conrad Black musical which must be in first draft somewhere).
After due deliberation—surprise, surprise—the board agrees, then buys the sudden executive director’s inventions (a third headlight for cars so that drivers can “see things in the middle”) is immediately purchased for $80,000 (the no-compete clause is never discussed), most of which goes back to Norrison when he presents his made-over, gradually-grateful aristocrat with his “account.”
As well, Schottenberg gets his own secretary with the new gig. Mike Nadajewski positively radiates as Miss Hoyngabow (adjusting his/her skirt on the first exit a savvy touch of business) and forever proves that office work can most certainly be a drag. Many of the cast take on multiple roles. Nadajewski is equally zany as the high-fevered lawyer who would give anything for an aspirin—even if the pills are nurturing the roses (with so many sight gags this show would take several viewings to appreciate them all—not surprising, given the countless hours of pleasure given previously by Williams as actor).
Norrison has a trio of bevies to take down and type his dictated letters: “Run, run, type, type,” he decries after offering shameless compliments about perfume or interfering in their love lives when it suits his plans.
And so this president ultimately gets his way, but not before realizing his mistress, Begonia, is being regularly diddled by another, younger married man (Thom Marriott’s confession to his boss is a hoot!) but consoles himself stoically: “Life must go on.”
Funny stuff indeed, lying, cheating, cajoling—forcing others to do your will. Thank goodness that only happens in the theatre. JWR