Most of us could name at least one president we’d like to see face trial by a jury of regular folks. But a pair of Shelter Island writers took that fantasy a step further.
Richard Tarlow, with Bill Smith contributing, created a theatrical experience in which audience members become jurors in a trial of President George W. Bush. The charges? “Launching an illegal war that caused civilian deaths and spawned the growth of Al-Qaeda and ISIS and use of brutal torture,” says the ad copy for the play.
The premise: World leaders, beset by worsening destabilization of the Middle East, demand that the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague call President Bush to account. At each performance, eight volunteers serve as “jurors” and their verdict, possibly different each time, becomes part of the play.
“The Trial of an American President,” which opens for a limited off-Broadway run at the Lion Theater in Manhattan on September 17, is ad man Mr. Tarlow’s second play (at Tufts University 54 years ago, he said, he wrote an absurdist drama about people stuck in an elevator, but flunked the class). Mr. Smith, an author and environmental activist, contributed writing and research.
In the play, the former president appears in court against the wishes of his family. He is portrayed by an actor, but the production makes use of audio and visual recordings of Mr. Bush and his top advisers, including Vice President Dick Cheney and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Other videos, with actors portraying victims of torture, war refugees and illegally detained prisoners, expand the action beyond the courtroom.
“Without taking sides, because I’m not supposed to be taking sides in this play, it is incredible to me that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld have not been called into a court of law for their actions to be examined,” Mr. Tarlow said, in a recent interview at his Nostrand Parkway home.
“The controversy over it — ignoring the United Nations, going to war with a country that is not attacking you, the unproven premise that there were weapons of mass destruction — I think that in any other country … the leaders would’ve been brought in front of the ICC to be tried,” he said.
The ICC has indicted 39 individuals, including Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony, but during the second Bush presidency, the United States withdrew its support of the court’s governing treaty. It’s unlikely a U.S. leader would ever face the court’s scrutiny.
Nonetheless, Mr. Tarlow said, it is compelling to imagine “what if?”
Mr. Tarlow, who began college at the University of North Carolina as a baseball and basketball player, continued to write despite his drama teacher’s assessment. The 75-year-old retired advertising executive has launched three successful ad agencies with accounts including Ralph Lauren/Polo, Revlon and ESPN. A philanthropist who takes an avid interest in the causes he supports,
Mr. Tarlow recently added executive producer to his resume, for a film, now in post-production, that stars John Malkovich and Glenn Close.
He began working with Mr. Smith on the play years ago but lately has been fully immersed in it, researching the Bush presidency and writing for hours at a stretch.
“I’ve read books that attack him, I’ve read books in his favor and I’ve read books that represent both sides,” he said. “But there is a lot of information and, if we are to keep people’s interest, it can’t feel like a lecture.”
Mr. Smith told the Reporter he’s written three books and hundreds of stories for fishing and outdoor magazines. He served for 12 years as leader of the local chapter of FISH Unlimited. No stranger to controversy, his unrelenting criticism of extensive pollution from the two nuclear reactors at Brookhaven National Laboratory contributed to the first closing of reactors in this country, he said.
Owner with his sons of a contracting business on the East End, Mr. Smith told the Reporter via email that he became involved in the play as a result of “outrage with the Bush Administration’s deception of the American public regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and Saddam Hussein’s involvement in 9/11.”
“It is my hope that this important work will reopen the debate about the Iraq War so that George Bush might finally be held accountable for his actions,” he wrote.
Produced by Shelter Entertainment, LLC and Hello Larry, Ltd., the one-act play features Tony Carlin as President Bush, Mahira Kakkar as narrator, and Michael Rogersas prosecutor. Directing the play is Stephen Eich, former managing director of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, whose credits include a Tony-award winner, “The Grapes of Wrath,” Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” and Paul Simon’s Broadway musical, “The Capeman.”
Performances are at the Lion Theater, 410 West 42nd Street, through October 15, Tuesdays at 7 p.m. and Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinées 2 p.m. on Saturdays and 3 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $51.25 can be purchased at telecharge.com, or by calling (212) 239-6200.