Uncle Vanya with Waterworks; Will Ferrell as Doofus in Chief

Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is about lives lived out in anomie, desperation and crushing isolation. It’s about the slow dawning of self-knowledge, and it’s about acceptance. With its contemporary American style wrapped in period costume, the broad new production scarcely conveys the nuances of the great play—and its middle-to-upper-class milieu not at all.

Though Mamie Gummer’s performance is also affected by the contagious weepiness, thank goodness for the compensation of her fine and openhearted Sonya. She delivers the play’s famous closing speech about endurance and hope beautifully: “And we shall find peace. We shall, Uncle, I believe it with all my heart and soul. …”

I’ve seen this young, immensely gifted actress two or three times now, and each time I’m struck by the honest reality of her work. Ms. Gummer is a stage natural with a glorious future. The time surely can’t be far off when we can stop pointing out that she’s the daughter of Meryl Streep.

 

WILL FERRELL’s You’re Welcome America: A Final Night With George W. Bush has arrived on Broadway about three years too late. Not that it makes any difference to Mr. Ferrell’s fans, who’ve turned the critic-proof show into a major hit. Besides, the likable star makes a wonderfully deadpan George Bush onstage, just as he makes a wonderfully deadpan doofus in his popular movies.

Or, as the 43rd president announces happily when he’s winched onto the stage of the Cort Theatre from a helicopter at the start, “I said to the pilot, why don’t you drop me in the faggy Theater District—and that’s what he did!”

You’re Welcome America, written by Mr. Ferrell and slickly directed by Adam McKay (Anchorman, Talladega Nights), is an extended—sometimes overextended—Saturday Night Live sketch, with a guest appearance from a lap-dancing Condoleezza Rice (Pia Glenn).

This is a President Bush who calls President Obama “the Tiger Woods guy.” A giant projection of what he sweetly calls “my penis” appears on a screen: “That’s what I call shock and awe right there!”

You get the frat message? But the saving grace of the uneven show is the masterly cool of Mr. Ferrell’s stage debut. He effortlessly captures President Bush’s peculiar combo platter of simmering peevishness and faux Texan swagger. One of the show’s funniest moments has the young and incompetent George trapped down a mine shaft with his father. “Why are you the only one in the family who talks with a Texas accent?” Poppy protests. “It makes no sense!”

Another hilariously surreal comic riff involves a covert army of highly trained monkeys with spear guns who’ve been recruited to fight insurgent Iraqis and entertain children.

It must be said that as cutting-edge political humor goes, it went. The show is satirically toothless. Mr. Ferrell’s targets (including Rummy, Condi and poor old Brownie) are easy, familiar prey, his Bush impersonation fond, nostalgic and even comforting. But when he asked us, in all righteously embarrassing seriousness, for a minute’s silence for our fallen troops in Iraq—and received it—I no longer knew who was doing the asking, George Bush or Will Ferrell, and found myself wishing I was someplace else.

You’re Welcome America: A Final Night With George Bush is to be televised live as an HBO special in March.

jheilpern@observer.com

Uncle Vanya with Waterworks; Will Ferrell as Doofus in Chief