Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
The Other American Idiot?
Book by Alex Timbers, music & lyrics by Michael Friedman
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, New York City, N.Y.,
Saturday, December 11, 2010, ( J– 105&106; middle stalls)
Directed by Alex Timbers
The fourth word in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’s opening line was a four-letter vulgarity that was then uttered and sung at something of a one-in-four-word frequency ‘till the final curtain call. There were some utterances and lyrics even more vulgar than the word, um, “four,” too. This obviously was not a production for delicate ears.
This was not a production for historical purists, either. Benjamin Walker as the titular character in leather-pants, sweaty white t-shirt, tousled hair, and eyeliner looked and acted more like Billy Joe Armstrong of Green Day than the seventh president of the United States. The rest of the company likewise were in modern dress and modern mode; accounts of Jackson’s first two runs for president were done as live newscasts, Jackson’s wife Rachel (Maria Elena Ramirez) was something of a Tammy Wynette, and Martin Van Buren (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) was an out-of-the-closet party planner. All of this played out on a set cluttered with vaguely frontierish artifacts; scenic designer Donyale Werle’s inspiration seemed to have come from watching a Disney Bear Jamboree while sipping on an Andro-laced LSD cocktail.
This Jackson bio played like a Mad Magazine strip, and like Mad’s parodies there was some loose playing with historical facts but also elements of deeper truths beneath the humor, namely in the portrayal of the Washington insiders. In addition to Near-Verbrugghe’s Van Buren, Ben Steinfeld’s James Monroe was an egomaniacal bureaucrat, Darren Goldstein’s John C. Calhoun was a seething Machiavellian, Bryce Pinkham’s Henry Clay was pathologically crazy, and Jeff Hiller’s John Quincy Adams was a clueless old codger. Their introduction garnered the show’s biggest laugh (I’m suspecting it was history teachers guffawing the most), and they got the biggest cheer in the curtain call.
The primary truth Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was trying to get to is how the 1830s and Jackson’s ascent is not much different than the U.S. political scene today. But whose ascent today is parallel? It hinted at Sarah Palin, but more because she is as two-dimensional as Walker’s Jackson made himself out to be. It hinted at President Obama, too, for once Jackson got into the White House, he was foiled by crises that just wouldn’t be settled by sticking to his principles.
Through the first two-thirds of the play. you couldn’t help feeling this was an endorsement of today’s Tea Party movement. But once in the White House, Jackson found that alienating Washington insiders and governing on the “will of the people” was not only fraught with failure but also just plain inefficient (every time Walker’s Jackson asked “a common person” for guidance, the ignorant reply only furthered his frustration). As charming as Walker’s Jackson was in a delinquent sort of way, and despite his political success, he proved too inept to handle real power once he had the reins.
To properly gauge this show’s true political leanings is to know what wasn’t covered. Jackson’s successful reforming of the National Bank and his heading off South Carolina’s secession while firming up power in the federal government got only scant mention in the script. On the other hand, the play’s climax focused solely on Jackson’s policy toward the American Indians, a policy that led directly to the Trail of Tears, the United States’ very own holocaust. In fact, the play’s final summary on the Jackson presidency was to compare him to Hitler, though even that line was played for laughs.
Which was the ultimate take-away from Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson: it was a bloody good show and a lot of fourin’ fun.
December 13, 2010