The question "Who was the worst U.S. president in history?" has, for some reason, been debated frequently over the past eight years. Warren G. Harding (1920-1923) definitely belongs on the short list, having occupied the White House during one of the most corrupt, least effective administrations the country has ever seen. In Poker Night at the White House, Dad's Garage Theatre conveys its opinion of Harding by portraying him as a life-size puppet with a voice and face not unlike "The Muppet Show's" Statler and Waldorf.
Poker Night at the White House serves as kind of a spin-off of 43 Plays About 43 Presidents, written by Sean Benjamin and other members of Chicago's Neo-Futurist theater. Staged by Dad's Garage in 2002, 43 Plays offered an angry, thoughtful and hilarious portrayal of Oval Office occupants. In Poker Night, Benjamin focuses on Harding and unearths a mother lode of stranger-than-fiction material with contemporary relevance. The facts and footnotes never amount to a compelling comedic play, however.
Three actors play multiple roles, with Kevin Huey speaking for the Harding puppet while wearing drag as "Madame X," the First Lady's astrologer. Gina Rickicki portrays Harding's wife, nicknamed "The Duchess" (and rumored to be the one actually running the country), as well as the voice of Nan Britton, the president's mistress secreted behind a closet door. Despite resounding echoes of the Monica Lewinsky affair, the play only repeats some weary sex-farce setups, with little variation or dramatic interest.
You can appreciate Poker Night's attempt to remember the mistakes of history, but as a play, it's too much "tell," not enough "show." Shadow puppets summarize scandals like Teapot Dome and the mysterious deaths that surrounded the Harding administration. When Harding's Secret Service agent (Randy Havens) reads to Harding from books not published in the POTUS' lifetime, or comments on other presidents who didn't survive their term in office, the already short script seems padded.
Directed by Marc Cram, the production features quote-mark lights above the stage that signify actual speeches or comments. Poker Night's best idea is to contrast Harding's "bloviating" rhetoric with the slashing prose of Jazz Age pundit and gadfly H.L. Mencken (Havens in glasses and hat reminiscent of silent-movie star Harold Lloyd). Near the end, Harding tries to defend his place in history and rattles off utterly trivial "accomplishments," such as being the first president to speak on the radio or use bumper stickers in a presidential campaign.
Poker Night at the White House at times suggests a Samuel Beckett play exploring the existential void of being Warren G. Harding. When Harding says, "The White House is a prison," you can recollect the candid remarks of more recent public servants, like FEMA director Michael Brown's "Can I quit now?" e-mail during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Harding, you did a heckuva job.
Poker Night at the White House. Through Feb. 23. $12-$22. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. Dad's Garage Theatre, 280 Elizabeth St. 404-523-3141. www.dadsgarage.com.