In today’s political climate, any heartfelt, sincere story to come out of the White House is reason for hope, and Act II Playhouse in Ambler offers that in Looking Over the President’s Shoulder, a one-man show based on Alonzo Fields’ memoir, My 21 Years in the White House.
As an African-American butler during the Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower administrations, Fields dealt with racism both overt and subtle. (He’s a different, earlier White House butler than the one Forest Whitaker plays in the movie The Butler).
James Still’s play weaves the protagonist’s own story with White House gossip and anecdotes. Fields stood behind Roosevelt’s chair, for instance, as aides informed the president of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Brian Anthony Wilson delves into this marathon of a one-man show with a valiant effort. His impersonations of royals and heads of state delivers much of the show’s comedy and intrigue.
Fields traded his early training as an opera singer for his butler’s tux, and Wilson’s singing gives us reason to ask if his character had the chops to make a real go of it.
David Bradley’s direction lends the production a slow pace, though, and some the historical anecdotes fall flat. Wilson slyly hints at grapes of gossip that the show instead chews over like dried prunes.
Looking Over the President’s Shoulder has a run time of nearly two hours, and I found myself asking why this play required an intermission when it needed an editor. Wilson often trips over the mountains of text.
Along with Liz McDonald’s props, James Leitner’s lighting adds some emotional touches, lingering in a low light on Roosevelt’s wheelchair after his death as his butler pushes behind it for the last time.
Fields published his memoirs in 1961 and passed away in 1994. Still premiered his piece in the twilight of the Obama administration.
Some of the historical notes still surprise and resonate, and when the White House gets its first refrigerator or telephone the pace of technology is amusing. But aside from budgetary reasons, I can’t see the need to stage something so artistically stale.
Looking Over the President’s Shoulder
Through Nov. 17 at Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Ave., Ambler.
Tickets: $33 to $47.
Information: 215-654-0200 or act2.org