Review: ‘The Investigation’ Makes the Mueller Report a Dark-Comic Indictment
Who knew that the Mueller report was a comedy?
The findings of the special counsel, of course, concern dead-serious questions about the integrity of American democracy. The published version is dry as a [redacted] saltine. Robert Mueller himself has the stoic G-man bearing of someone who would laugh by writing “ha ha” on a memo pad.
Yet “The Investigation,” a star-studded dramatic reading of sections of the report, adapted by the playwright Robert Schenkkan and staged at Manhattan’s Riverside Church and live-streamed Monday night, opens with an episode of drawing-room, or rather dining-room, farce. It’s early 2017, and President Trump (John Lithgow) meets with then-F.B.I. director James Comey (Justin Long) over dinner.
“I need loyalty!” Mr. Lithgow fulminates.
“You will always get honesty from me,” Mr. Long answers, stiffly.
“That’s what I want. Honest loyalty.”
If you’ve followed this case, you’ve already heard this story — not just in the Mueller report, but in newspapers like this one, back in 2017. But something about Mr. Lithgow’s bluster and the way he hits “loyalty” a little harder than “honest” nails something essential about his character, and the assembled audience cracks up.
You gotta laugh, right? “The Investigation,” now available to stream online, is a bizarre creature, both as drama and as civic effort. But the fact of its existence, and the way it gives voice to the dry details of the report, feel somehow perfectly suited to this surreal political moment.
“The Investigation” is subtitled “A Search for the Truth in Ten Acts.” That “acts” has a double meaning; the 10 segments of the play detail 10 instances of potential obstruction of justice by the president, hewing closely to the report’s language. The actors sit at lecterns draped in flag bunting, reading from scripts in binders.
It’s part old-time public recitation, part Hollywood table read, and at points actors stumble over the workmanlike text. Yet the play — can we call it that? — moves surprisingly briskly through a tight hour and fifteen minutes. The story pingpongs around the stage from a narrator (Annette Bening) to Mr. Mueller (Kevin Kline) to the various actors, who often pick up the narrative midsentence as the point of view shifts, the editing following them nimbly.
Their interpretations vary. Michael Shannon and Alfre Woodard give just-the-facts readings of Don McGahn and Hope Hicks. Joel Grey, on the other hand, adapts an ah-do-declare drawl as the Alabamian former attorney general Jeff Sessions, the put-upon Mr. Cellophane of this story, whose resignation letter becomes a drawn-from-life running gag.
Jason Alexander is dream-cast as Chris Christie, that most Seinfeldian of Trump-orbit figures. In Mr. Alexander’s mouth, Mr. Christie’s prediction that the investigation of Michael Flynn would stick to the administration “like gum on the bottom of your shoe” recalls George Costanza saying that the sea was angry, like an old man trying to send back a bowl of soup.
It’s Mr. Lithgow who’s hit the jackpot here, though. Never averse to chewing a bit of scenery that was asking for it, he’s landed a character who is essentially impossible to overact. Laying into Mr. Sessions or launching into a tweet storm (“Sad!”), he builds a raging, red-faced, percussive momentum. At some self-pitying moments, he tosses in just a splash of Richard Nixon.
The peals of laughter he draws, intended or not, show the power of Donald Trump — the construct, the public performance — even when he’s not present. The president’s Ubu Roi energy, on stage as in life, shades every event toward farce, even in a constitutional crisis or a showdown with a nuclear rival. “You gotta laugh,” in this era, can feel less like equanimity and more like a Pavlovian command.
In that sense, the beige tone of Mr. Mueller’s report — that desiccating bureaucratese denying the events their juice and soundbite-ability — is something of a radical act in this day and age. But judicious understatement only gets you so big an audience.
And what audience was paying attention to “The Investigation”? The drama’s online distribution, late announcement and word-of-mouth publicity suggest it was likely viewed by an interested audience for whom “If it’s what you say I love it” is already as well known as a Hamlet soliloquy.
You might imagine a performance like this — earnest, star-spangled and populated with respectable thespians — airing to a bigger crowd on cable or public TV as a service. Yes, the report is already available in many forms, print and audio, and Mr. Mueller has reprised its highlights on TV. But a reading, even sticking closely to the ur-text, gives it the voice, arc and thrust that humans use to make meaning.
Unfortunately these days simply presenting a government report on a matter of national security will be labeled “political,” because one partisan half of America prefers the report be put to rest. It only takes opposition from one party to make media outlets nervous about looking like the opposition party.
So that leaves it to projects like “The Investigation,” which, despite sticking mainly to the letter of the report, has a decidedly nonneutral take. It focuses on the more damning second half, dealing with obstruction. It’s structured like an argument to a jury, complete with a description of the impeachment process. This is not a drama that wants you to leave the theater debating the subtext.
Most pointedly, it finishes with the company repeating the 10 instances of potential obstruction like the 10 plagues of Passover. (“Act Five: President Trump prevented the public disclosure of evidence.”) Ms. Bening ends the litany by rebutting arguments in the president’s defense and issuing a call to action: “Robert Mueller did his job. The question is, will we do ours?”
But beyond that, performance is inherently subjective. Even if you don’t judge a character’s politics, you can’t bring them to life without having some theory of their nature. And if nothing else, Mr. Lithgow has created a memorable Donald Trump: sputtering, indignant, blasting out rivers of verbiage in the hope of sailing away on them to safety.
I doubt this is what Robert Mueller had in mind. But with an assist from Mr. Schenkkan (no stranger to dramatizing the current administration) and Mr. Lithgow, he ended up bringing forth the kind of literary figure who might have come from the keyboard of Tony Kushner: an embattled, thunderous giant, furiously playing the angles in America.