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Tony Braithwaite created and stars in the comedic First Impressions at Montgomery Theater, and it’s just the thing for audiences who need a good laugh. The nearly bare stage is dominated by a presidential seal on the rear wall and a corner upright piano draped in bunting. Braithwaite keeps up a blistering pace, skewering presidents and other notables as an "equal-opportunity offender.”
Braithwaite, one of the best-known faces in Greater Philadelphia theater, wears many hats. He is artistic director of Act II Playhouse in Ambler, Pennsylvania; an actor and perennial Barrymore nominee; a writer; and director of dramatics at St. Joseph’s Preparatory Academy. He also has a gift for mimicry, on full display when he played 30 characters in This Wonderful Life, a one-man adaptation of the Frank Capra film It’s a Wonderful Life, at Act II in 2016.
This version of First Impressions, which premiered in 2011, embraces the new crop of nitwits gracing national politics. Braithwaite kicks it off playing an anguished patient who asks two white-coated doctors for help, (Howie Brown and Tracie Higgins, his companions in fun all night). He complains of acute nervous disorders and the doctors diagnose his condition: PTSD, or “Post-Trump Stress Disorder.” They propose a cure: nonstop laughter.
Maybe Trump is too easy a prime target for any self-respecting mime. Braithwaite is content to lampoon others as Howie Brown plays a string of urgent, imaginary reporters. Braithwaite masters Nixon’s physical gestures and has fun with both Bushes. But he especially enjoys Bill Clinton’s weaselly ways.
One of Brown’s reporters (perhaps Q. Rethra from the Prostate Examiner?) asks, “What do you do when confronted with facts?” Clinton answers, “I play the sax.” Even that does not work, as recorded music malfunctions in the middle of his recital.
Braithwaite’s team also sings choral numbers. “National Brotherhood Week” is a tribute to satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer (who recently turned 90). “Razzle Dazzle ‘Em” puts new lyrics to the Chicago musical number, giving advice to politician wannabes. Co-conspirator Higgins does a hilarious Melania Trump, starting with new lyrics for Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” Both she and Brown read farcical news items torn from newspaper headlines.
On occasion, the show strikes a semi-serious chord. Braithwaite points out that Will Rogers mimicked Calvin Coolidge on radio in 1928 and was forced to apologize. Piano player Owen Robbins also periodically quotes politicians who dropped the dime on their profession. Harry Truman: “Early in life I made the choice to be either a piano player in a whorehouse or a politician.” (I find Winston Churchill more appropriate for our political times: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”)
But gaiety prevails. Braithwaite mimics Hollywood icons in a segment called “Auditions for America: The Movie.” Late in the show Braithwaite prowls the theater for an audience participant and vows to make him a household name. After a charming serious of questions and ad libs, Braithwaite and company learn enough about his life to stage an impromptu rap musical in the spirit of Hamilton (a big hit with the audience).
The elephant in the room
And yet, at the 11th hour, Trump makes an appearance in the form of Braithwaite sporting a garish blond wig. He pulls down a shade to reveal a portrait of John Reynolds, mayor of Souderton, Pennsylvania (home of the theater). “Friends, I have great news. This is great news. Really great.”
He announces plans to run for mayor, because rapist animals from Harleysville have been invading Souderton and “Crooked Johnnie” has done nothing about it. Trump promises to build a wall. “And Harleysville will pay for it.”
This kind of roasting would land you in hot water in many places in the world. But at Montgomery Theater the audience agreed with the doctors’ cure for PTSD, at least until we return to the times of Calvin Coolidge, when America used to be great.
What, When, Where
First Impressions. By Tony Braithwaite. Through July 22, 2018, at the Montgomery Theater, 124 N. Main Street, Souderton, Pennsylvania. (215) 723-9984 or montgomerytheater.org.
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