The theater gods have granted a surprise second-term to Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground at Theater at St. Clement’s, but it’s a short one: You have until Oct. 27 to catch John Rubinstein’s fascinating facsimile of our 34th President, one of the season’s more impressive solo shows.
Richard Hellesen’s play leaves spaces for Ike’s unexpected humor and frontal humanity, but most of it is played in a cranky old-grandfatherly rant. It’s 1962, and he’s storming around his Gettysburg, Pennsylvania farm over an article in The New York Times Magazine where 75 historians rank the American Presidents based on their greatness. In the 1962 field of 35 he places 22, and this understandably leaves him pretty hot under the collar. He retaliates by reviewing his achievements, yelling them into a tape recorder he keeps around for his forthcoming memoir.
“I don’t need to get myself cranked up,” Rubinstein tells Observer of playing that fit of pique. “I’m cranked. No matter what play I happen to be in, I get to the theater, roll up my sleeves, go out and do my own thing. I didn’t need to do a lot of preparation for this, and that’s because it’s really a beautifully written play. I don’t have to help the playwright get his word across. It’s there, and I just walk out and do it.”
Rubinstein, the son of famed concert pianist Arthur Rubinstein, made his Broadway debut in the title role of Pippin 51 years ago, a show he returned to in 2013, this time playing Pippin’s father, Charlemagne. Along the way, he picked up a Tony for Children of a Lesser God, and he’s graced TV screens across the decades, playing recurring parts on everything from Matlock to The Wizards of Waverley Place to This Is Us. But in all this time the joys and perils of the one-man show had eluded him.
“When you’re young and you want to be in theater, it’s not just so you can be a performer,” Rubinstein says. “It’s that feeling of team spirit. I’m sure it’s what underpins sports—the love of sports. There’s just something about it—the practices and the games. Opponents are sorta like the audience—your team offering something to the other team. There’s a wonderful satisfaction you derive from that. With a one-man show, you get none of that. I love it, but, at the same time, it’s lonely.”
Eisenhower found its way to the actor quite by accident. Rubinstein participated a couple of times in The Annual William Inge Festival in Independence, Kansas, honoring different playwrights—once for Garson Kanin, then for David Henry Hwang (Rubinstein was on Broadway in his Tony winning M. Butterfly).
“Peter Ellenstein was running the festival,” Rubinstein recalls. “And I met him. That was around 1992-ish. In 2021, when he was running Theater West in Los Angeles, I get this email from him, alerting me to Eisenhower.
“I read it, and I realized immediately this was my one-man show. I had always imagined myself sitting at a piano like Cole Porter, singing, doing musical stuff, but I never got that together. So I read it, and I said, ‘Jesus Christ, this is just a 40-page, single-spaced monologue. A., who’s going to come to see this? And B., I don’t have any idea if I can memorize it.’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ They said, ‘Well, come and read it aloud to us. We’ve never heard it.’ I said, ‘Sure. I can do that.’
“They advised me to listen to some Ike tapes, and I did, but his voice reminded me of a fellow from my own past—an older guy who was a high-school principal in Indiana. Being a principal, he was used to talking with authority. Everybody listened to him. He had that same kind of talk.
“I showed up at that meeting with the two of them without having done a lot of work, having that sound in my ear. After I finished, we looked at each other and said, ‘We gotta use that.’ Saying the words instead of reading them made me know it was a really good piece of theater.”
Coming at a time when many politicians are angry ants sowing division, Eisenhower is an oddly topical play. The anger Ike shows in the play is something he never showed in public. He was interested in bringing the country together, and he passed legislation to make that happen.
Power and fame weren’t what pushed Eisenhower. Rubinstein views him as stuck in a job he didn’t really want, trying to do it as well as it possibly can be done. “That made him humble and human and more concerned helping the people he’s responsible for, the people of this country,” he says.
“Hellensen wrote this two-hour speech in which Eisenhower doesn’t know what he’s going to say from one minute to the next,” he continues. “He’s reacting to the Times article about how he’s rated. It’s a conversation with his own mind and psyche. His ego is hurt, not being more that 22 in the ratings, but then he starts to think, ‘Wait a minute! That’s not what it’s all about. What are we talking about? Greatness?’ He is having a conversation with himself and trying to figure it out.”
A postscript attached to the play notes that by 2022 Ike had risen in those presidential rankings to a redemptive number five.
Because John Rubinstein’s father, the concert pianist Arthur Rubinstein, frequently played Washington, D.C., he became friends with Eisenhower’s chief of staff, Sherman Adams, who invited the whole family on a tour of the White House. “At one point, we passed a doorway, and there was Eisenhower talking to a bunch of diplomats. He said, ‘Just a minute,’ and he went to the door where we were. He said, ‘Hi’ to my mother and father. Then, he turned to me. ‘Hello, young fella. Nice to meet you. How you doing?’ That’s the extent of my interview with Eisenhower.”
But he still remembers, at the age of nine, he shook the hand of the man he is now playing.