On Monday night, a passel of Hollywood A-listers did the most theater geek thing imaginable: They attempted to fix the problems of America by doing a staged reading of a play.
The movie stars gathered at the Riverside Church in New York to read an adaptation of special counsel Robert Mueller's 448-page report on Russian interference in the 2016 election and President Trump's possible obstruction of that investigation, written by Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Robert Shenkkan. The Investigation: A Search for the Truth in Ten Acts was livestreamed for the world to see. Each act was meant to show an act of obstruction, i.e. Act 1 showed Trump asking the FBI to shut down the investigation into Michael Flynn, Act 2 showed him saying that he fired FBI director James Comey because of Russia.
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The reading lasted roughly an hour and left many viewers perplexed. What … was that? But the point seemed to be to try to bring the Mueller report to life, using the talents and charms and fame of Hollywood, so that the public—and perhaps Congress, for whom the report was actually written—might finally take note. It felt like Hollywood's attempt to make up for a different, less animated performance that happened a month ago.
On May 29, America tuned in for what should have been quite a spectacle. The star of the show couldn't have had a more rapt audience hanging on his every word. Robert Mueller, the special counsel, was giving a press conference. This, liberals and #resistancefighters and even centrists thought, was the moment that the man who'd been dogging President Trump for two years would explain the conclusions of his long-awaited report clearly, emphatically, once and for all. He would, they hoped, directly contradict attorney general William Barr's interpretation of the report as clearing the president of all wrongdoing.
Instead, viewers watching TV news or listening to the radio or tuned into the livestream at their desks heard a nervous, almost monotone lawyer speaking in legalese. Mueller's measured talk was no match for the sound bites of Trump's tweets and the flash of Barr's multiple TV appearances. Mueller's strongest statement—"if we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so"—was a double negative you needed a degree in semiotics to decipher.
With Monday's live reading, Hollywood appeared to be saying if publishing the report as a book and audiobook won't do it, if a press conference from Mueller won't do it, if two years of build up and press coverage won't do, we'll damn well get America to care about this report using the power of the theater! The results were strange.
Kevin Kline played Mueller, and though Kline is an animated and talented actor, he chose to portray the man as subdued and reserved as he actually is, which had the perhaps unintended effect of rendering his words as forgettable as Mueller's press conference performance.
John Lithgow starred as Trump and was satisfyingly angry and animated, though for every great line-read that got your attention he was forced to weirdly read his own stage directions, which was both confusing and brought him out of character. Annette Bening read editorial comments from the playwright in the role of narrator, and that was fine.
The rest of the cast—from Michael Shannon (with a lustrous mane of hair) to Alyssa Milano—played multiple characters, which was often incredibly confusing, even for the actors. At one point Milano missed her cue to come in and read as lawyer Jay Sekulow, and who really could blame her? The "play" hadn't contextualized who Sukelow was, hadn't explained that she was playing him, and had no way—at least in the livestream—for viewers to keep track of who anyone was playing.
The Investigation was like what would happen if the members of your mom's secret #muellerreport Facebook group all got fabulous new haircuts and then livestreamed their group chat.
As a piece of performance art, it had the same rushed, unrehearsed feeling that every staged reading of a play ever has. Readings like this are usually done because the playwright is not yet finished writing or the theater hasn't committed to a full-blown production, so they're testing the waters. Even when they are written to be performed as a reading—à la The Vagina Monologues or The Exonerated—they are done so to minimize preparation time so the cast can easily rotate. Essentially, they're always thrown together. Last night was no exception.
Emily Dreyfuss covers the intersection of tech and culture for WIRED.
Which is why, of course, you'd be forgiven for missing it. The reading was announced just a few hours before it aired, with a press release from the nonprofit Law Works, which sponsored the event. Like so many political/cultural events these days, I first learned of it from an Alyssa Milano tweet sent with six hours' notice. I canceled my plans (feeding and having dinner with my family) and watched the countdown clock on the Law Works website. When it struck 6 pm, I was hit with my first disappointment: The livestream didn't autoplay. I refreshed a few times and finally got the stream to play at around 6:06 pm, with the reading already in full swing. I had no idea who anyone was supposed to be.
As with any staged reading, the actors sat in the classic position, with scripts balanced on music stands in front of them. Some of the actors stood up to read their lines, others didn’t. Some had clearly prepared, like Lithgow, and did a great job with the actual dialog. Others seemed to be reading the script for the first time.
Like Mueller’s press conference, it was largely a frustrating viewing experience. Everything happened so fast and vacillated between confusing, funny, and cringey. The most successful moments of the show from a theatrical perspective were the laugh lines. Noah Emmerich got a few as Steve Bannon. Lithgow got a lot reading Trump tweets. (FWIW, I would tune in to an audio recording of Lithgow reading Trump tweets on the regular, if a producer out there wants to make a successful podcast.)
But every laugh underscored how mismatched to the purpose this format was. The point, surely, wasn't to make light of the report. It was rather to show how damaging and important this widely under-read report is. But in order to not bore anyone to death, the actors played up their lines. They yelled, they emoted, they acted! It looked like they were really having a lot of fun, which is wonderful for them. But by playing it for laughs, the reading made the report into a sideshow. And even when the drama hit home, the best moments—a fiery exchange between Lithgow and Joel Grey (as Jeff Sessions) in Act 2, for instance—were undermined by the rushed and weird format.
Maybe it played better in the room. Perhaps a version of this as an audiobook or actual video series would have felt different. But the truth is, asking people to watch a video of a live theatrical performance is really never appropriate, no matter how noble the cause. Even highly produced Broadway shows don't translate well to video. Theater is meant to be experienced in situ. This goes double for staged readings.
Only two kinds of people are usually ever willing to watch your videotaped performances: your parents (if they missed the show live) and someone who is trying to sleep with you. (I don’t make these rules, I just live in the world, folks.) It doesn't appear that many people did watch Monday night. No hashtag emerged. None of the actors' names trended. When I asked how people had liked it on Twitter, the most common response I got was, "Are you actually watching that?" The people who did watch were the ones most likely to have already read the report. The people tweeting approvingly about it often had left-leaning political statements in their bios. Those tweeting about how it proved Hollywood was full of a bunch of narcissistic liberals had, predictably, conservative lingo in theirs.
What did Hollywood achieve last night? Not very much. But perhaps it can provide Tinseltown with one new rule: Staged readings should never be livestreamed.
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