At this point, the prospect of spending an evening in the company of George W. Bush hardly sounds appealing, whatever your political persuasion. But as personified by Will Ferrell, reprising the hilarious caricature he honed to perfection on "Saturday Night Live," the ex-president turns out to be a hell of a lot of fun to hang with.
Granted, the generally lowbrow humor of "You're Welcome America. A Final Night with George W. Bush" is hardly cuttingedge political satire. Basically a (nearly) solo extended sketch, it's theatrical comfort food for Broadway audiences who want to see one of their favorite comic actors live.
As a glowering Secret Service agent hovers nearby (played by Patrick Ferrell, the star's brother), this Dubya is literally airlifted down to the stage, where he proceeds to regale us with 90 minutes of malapropisms and skewed logic.
After reassuring us that he holds no ill feelings toward his successor ("I'm a fan of the Tiger Woods guy"), Bush provides a comic apologia for his administration, complete with a slide show of all the major players and his penis ("That's what you call shock and awe!").
Defending himself against the use of torture (he compares waterboarding to "a spa treatment at Bliss") and his lack of response to Katrina ("I don't hate black people . . . I don't even think about them"), he finds himself ducking a flying shoe, hurled by an audience plant.
A sexily dressed Condoleezza Rice (Pia Glenn) makes a hilarious cameo appearance, performing a torrid dance number that definitely raises the onstage temperature.
The evening, scripted by Ferrell and directed by Adam McKay, gets serious for a moment when Bush describes his torment over the war's casualties and calls for a moment of silence. While admirably intentioned, it doesn't really fit in with the surrounding farce.
No doubt Ferrell will retire his most famous character after the show ends its run next month. We can only hope future administrations won't provide as much comic fodder as the last one.
The 43rd president of the United States, who is known for his gift for instant nicknames, is generously sharing his talent these days with audiences at the Cort Theater, home to “You’re Welcome America. A Final Night With George W Bush.” Toward the end of this largely unsurprising, uh, celebration of one man’s life and accomplishments, Mr. Bush, reincarnated by the comedian and movie star Will Ferrell, asks theatergoers to tell him their occupations, so he can give them the gift of his own pet names.
“Occupational therapist,” called out one woman at the performance I attended. “Helen Keller,” answered Mr. Ferrell as Mr. Bush, without pausing to think. “Bike messenger,” said another person. “I’ll call you Lance Armstrong,” responded Mr. Ferrell. But the coup de grâce came when a voice (not mine) yelled, “Reviewer,” and the man onstage answered, with the impact of a thrusting sword, “Obsolete profession.”
Touché, Mr. President. Or more to the point: Touché, Mr. Ferrell. The days when criticism of Mr. Bush could be censured as unpatriotic may be long gone, but Mr. Ferrell arrives on Broadway armed with the deflector shield of his sky-high popularity. In “You’re Welcome America,” written by Mr. Ferrell and directed by Adam McKay, the actor provides a critic-proof demonstration of the art that has endeared him to millions of fans around the world: the art of acting stupid, shrewdly, for fun and profit.
Some might say that this is a talent shared by the man Mr. Ferrell impersonates. But the George W. Bush of “You’re Welcome America” — which officially opened Thursday night but has already been doing near capacity business in previews — is just stupid, without the shrewdness.
He’s a cocky but bumbling fellow, trapped forever in puberty, always eager to play and eternally armored in the self-assurance that often goes with a lack of self-knowledge. He is given to jaw-dropping malapropisms and misinterpretations, and he has a raunchy exhibitionist streak. He is, in other words, a typical leading man from a Will Ferrell comedy. And his life and times, as portrayed here, are not unlike what might happen if the middle-aged adolescent played by Mr. Ferrell in his recent film “Step Brothers” (directed by Mr. McKay) were, by some bizarre fluke, thrust into the American presidency.
Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon inspired stage satires cast in the mold of Shakespearean and Greek tragedies. Mr. Bush gets a comedy of ineptitude.
By these standards you might say that in cultural terms the George W. Bush of “You’re Welcome America” is exactly the right leader for his time: a man who translated the most enduringly popular movie archetype of the last two decades — the clueless doofus — into the most powerful political position in the world. Further expanding and exaggerating that archetype (as many satirists and op-ed columnists have done), Mr. Ferrell now presents George W. Bush in the White House as the ultimate sequel to “Dumb and Dumber.”
Mr. Ferrell had already forged his vision of Mr. Bush in sketches on “Saturday Night Live,” and much of what he does here is a retread of those impersonations. (It seems right that the show will be presented live as an HBO special.) Unlike Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin, Mr. Ferrell’s Bush is less exact imitation than loopy extrapolation. And the show feels freshest when he goes off on surreal tangents that transport his blundering hero into the ether of pure absurdism.
There is comic genius in riffs that take Mr. Bush into an abandoned mine shaft with his father and brother, whence they are delivered by a Homerically heroic Barbara Bush, and to a secret military base in North Carolina, where he supervises the training of monkeys with spear guns (meant both to destroy insurgent Iraqis and to entertain children). This is the stuff of inspired stand-up, when a comedian follows a corkscrew logic into strange, scary and wondrous lands that feel truer than the truth.
Some set pieces are only for titillating shock effect, like the one in which Mr. Bush speaks of a homoerotic idyll with a man he met while participating in a foursome (which he thought was a threesome, math being one of his many weak suits). Parents with Ferrell-loving kids should know that the show features a giant projected photo of what is said to be Mr. Bush’s penis.
“That’s what I call shock and awe, right there,” Mr. Ferrell says, pointing to the image.
As you may have gathered, Mr. Ferrell does not go out of his way to avoid the obvious. “Wipe that smirk off your face, do you hear me?” he says to a man in the audience. “I was a cheerleader at Yale.” He refers to opening “the anals of history.” There are jokes about freedom fries and Dick Cheney as a devil worshiper.
And, yes, a shoe or two will be thrown before the production’s end.
Mr. Ferrell’s Bush makes gloating reference to Americans’ short attention spans, an affliction this show’s creators seem to know is shared by many Broadway theatergoers. So they have provided vaudevillian diversions, including a break-dancing Secret Service agent (Patrick Ferrell, brother of Will) and a Condoleezza Rice reimagined as a red-hot lap dancer by Pia Glenn. There is even, in the crowd-pleasing tradition of “Mary Poppins,” an entrance from the heavens.
Mr. Ferrell and Mr. McKay have enlisted a first-rate production team that includes the estimable Eugene Lee (sets) and Brian MacDevitt (lighting). The show looks slick, and Mr. Ferrell has an ace comedian’s knowledge of how to keep the audience with him, even when his material is spotty.
Occasionally the production slides into solemnity, with catalogs of the consequences of the Bush administration’s dealings with war and the disaster of Hurricane Katrina.
“You’re Welcome America” dips into these pockets of darkness only long enough to suggest where Mr. Ferrell’s political sympathies lie. I suppose the show might provide some cathartic value to anti-Bushites who feel they never really got to snort goodbye to their departed commander in chief.
But ultimately this production is less about the legacy of George W. Bush than it is about the comic persona that has been perfected by Will Ferrell.
“You’re Welcome America” is a lot like Mr. Ferrell’s more middling movies, not quite on a level with “Blades of Glory” or “Talladega Nights.”
Sometimes it’s really funny, and sometimes it sort of sags. I laughed, I yawned.
With the economy choking, the cost of living spiking, 401(k)s evaporating and unemployment spiraling ever upward, it takes a comic commander-in-chief with real authority to keep an audience laughing through a blow-by-blow recap of eight years with the man who helped make it all happen. But if bleak reality has distracted much of the nation from the massive sigh of relief it might otherwise have heaved when president No. 43 exited the White House, Will Ferrell provides a cathartic, almost cleansing farewell in "You're Welcome America: A Final Night With George W Bush."
Teaming with "Saturday Night Live" crony Adam McKay (a former head writer on the show, and director of "Anchorman" and "Talladega Nights"), Ferrell delivers what's basically an extended "SNL" political sketch grafted out of the easiest target in comedy. But, aside from the brilliant Tina Fey-as-Sarah Palin exceptions, it's the kind of incisive "SNL" sketch we haven't seen much of lately -- a fast-paced, well-sustained near-90 minutes that's consistently funny and invigoratingly rude.
It was a smart move for HBO to sign on as a producing partner and secure rights to air a live telecast of the show, which should play as well on the smallscreen as it does onstage. That said, it would be hard to fully capture the punchy interactive dynamic between Ferrell and his audience, which at a glance appears to skew younger and with a larger straight-male bias than the average Broadway show.
(There were even uniformed sailors at the first press perf, which possibly hasn't happened since "On the Town.")
In his chronicle of a political career carved out of nepotism, cynicism, chutzpah and careful management, and marked by a series of colossal blunders and false achievements, Ferrell makes no apologies for Bush. Yet, in his blissful ineptitude and irresponsibility, he's somehow endearing.
Dropped from the flies by a Marine One chopper into "the faggy theater district," Ferrell as Bush sizes up the crowd with that now-famous self-satisfied squint, thickly laying on the cocky swagger and folksy drawl as he announces, "We're here to remember, cherish and celebrate." He seemingly carries no bitterness toward his successor ("Listen, I'm a fan of the Tiger Woods guy"), and even appears liberated by his release from duty. "I feel as free as balls in boxers," he offers, sparking up a joint rolled from primo "Panamanian Devil's Crotch."
Returning to the time "when wings take dream," Ferrell recaps Bush's pre-political years -- his studies at Yale; his membership in the secretive Skull and Bones society; a memorable four-way sexual encounter; and his stint with the Air National Guard, providing an outrageous explanation for his AWOL period in 1972-73.
Ferrell then skips through Bush's years as governor of Texas to focus for most of the show on his two White House terms. There's plenty of humor mined from actual occurrences, verbatim soundbites (identified in rear-screen projections with a ping as the words "True" or "Actual Quote" flash) and Dubya's assessments of his political colleagues, notably a steamy confession of his "raw, animal" connection with Condoleezza Rice (Pia Glenn, poured into skin-tight red faux-Chanel and crawling across the Oval Office desk like a hot bitch in a Whitesnake video).
But it's in the more fanciful satirical detours that Ferrell soars highest. The most priceless of these is an extended mini-narrative about a family excursion into an abandoned mineshaft, prompting a superhuman rescue by Barbara "Scary Lady" Bush. There's also a "Xanax hallucination" in the Texas woods involving Big Foot that serves to elucidate Bush's position on global warming; a bizarre account of a unit of specially trained, speargun-carrying monkeys; and a gut-busting recollection of walking in on Dick Cheney in the White House basement in an intimate act with a goat-devil.
Then there are returning fixations on New York Times columnists, Diego Luna and "Western-grip handjobs," complete with helpful technique tips.
The admission of Bush's real feelings about his ranch at Crawford and, in particular, about brush-clearing score huge laughs. Pretty much everyone significantly connected with the administration is on the firing line, with the exception of Laura Bush, from whom Ferrell keeps a respectful distance. But the show never descends into mean-spirited diatribe. As appalled as Ferrell and most of his audience clearly are about the tarnished track record of our last president, the mockery is underscored at all times by a comedian's warped affection for a gift that keeps on giving.
Some of the funniest stuff here is built around Bush's own blithe acknowledgement of his unsuitability for the job. The pained confusion on his face at the whirl of instructions and information on day one of his presidency says it all. And when Ferrell does Bush doing his father or Cheney/Rumsfeld, angrily reprimanding him for his stupidity or inability to listen, the character takes on an impish childlike quality that's almost sympathetic. Even later, in a candid red-telephone conversation with former FEMA bungler "Brownie," Bush's perverse pleasure in his screw-ups is that of a naughty, self-satisfied kid.
In the wake of so many angry rants about the Bush government's litany of disgraces, the key to Ferrell's success in making the impersonation work for an entire show is his refusal to demonize the man. Instead, he finds the sweetness in a character who's just a big, brash dolt and simply in way over his head. McKay's unfussy production makes good use of Eugene Lee's patriotic set and Lisa Cuscuna and Chris Cronin's amusing video elements. There's also a fun sampling of appropriate music, from triumphalist '80s rock to Billy Joel, the Doobie Brothers and George Jones crooning "My Elusive Dream."
Despite minimal input from four other players -- including Secret Service agent dance breaks that serve little purpose beyond giving Ferrell time for costume changes -- this is basically a solo show, more standup than play. And from his airborne entrance to his faux-reflective exit ("Am I the worst president of all time?"), Ferrell is deep in character -- absolutely in charge and at ease, notably in a freestyle segment in which he comes up with instant nicknames for audience members.
Diehard or even casual Ferrell fans will not feel cheated.