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THEATER REVIEW

Tall tale of Clinton friendship falls short

November 21, 2005|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

It's the arc of so many friendships: the thrilling, unexpected beginning, the deepening familiarity of the middle and the pang of loss at the end. The twist to the tale Rick Cleveland tells in "My Buddy Bill" is that the friendship occurred with President Clinton.

It's clear from the tone of this solo performance, which inaugurates the living-room-like Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, that Cleveland isn't the sort to let facts get in the way of a juicy story. He's spinning a yarn, which the listener can get wrapped up in or try to pull apart.

Either response can be pleasantly diverting, but truth be told, there's little in this 70-minute presentation to justify its $49 admission price, much less the importance bestowed upon it as the first show scheduled into an exciting new performance space.

As he tells his story, Cleveland, a writer-producer for "Six Feet Under" and Emmy winner for "The West Wing," remains seated, Spalding Gray-like, at a desk. A sense of impishness lurks behind his determinedly deadpan demeanor.

The introduction to Clinton, Cleveland claims, is facilitated by Buddy, residing as first dog at the White House when the writer visits with other "West Wing" scribes toward the end of Clinton's tenure. The president has joined them in the Oval Office when Buddy piddles on the carpet and Cleveland, a dog owner, instinctively shifts into animal-training mode.

A few weeks later, Cleveland is home in Topanga Canyon when the president calls. He and Buddy are visiting California. Is there a dog-friendly beach Cleveland can recommend?

Soon follows a game of cat-and-mouse with a Secret Service agent named Pogue; a run-in with threatening sea lions; and a jam session with Clinton, his brother Roger and Billy Bob Thornton.

Cleveland, working with director Peter Birkenhead, relates these episodes conversationally, mustering a fairly good Arkansas twang when speaking as Clinton but otherwise refraining from big gestures or overt acting. On his desk, the small screen of an LCD photo frame glows with high-resolution photographs that change with each chapter in the story.

Some of the smaller details are quite charming, such as the description of an impromptu family photo with the president that "is now stuck to our refrigerator with a Spider-Man magnet." And there are lines that wouldn't be out of place on a sitcom.

While Clinton and Cleveland are being whisked along in a caravan -- windows down so their dogs can enjoy the wind -- the president confides that he's looking forward to a day when his life won't involve so much hullabaloo. " 'Someday it's just gonna be me and Buddy in a pickup truck,' " he says. Cleveland, sensing that someone is being left out of this picture, asks, " 'What about Hillary?' " Clinton replies: " 'Hillary? Hillary hates pickup trucks.' "

By the time the tale veers into a questionable hangout in Amsterdam, however, the haze of incredibility hangs thick. And the ending -- which is unlikely to go over well with the Hillary-for-president crowd -- feels like a cheat.

Nearly justifying the price of admission, however, is this chance to see the new second theater. It's housed in a new glass-fronted structure to the southeast of the original building, accounting for nearly $8 million of the $17-million renovation and expansion. At once industrial and elegant, the theater's intimate interior contains one wall of raw concrete, providing a contrast to the rich, cherry-chocolate wood that predominates elsewhere. Seating can be configured from in-the-round to straight-on. The horseshoe arrangement used for this presentation accommodates 117 theatergoers.

Once relaxed into a tan and maroon seat, a person feels like a guest in someone's cozy, comfortable home. It's the perfect atmosphere for Cleveland's offhand yarn. Too bad he doesn't make more of it.

*

`My Buddy Bill'

Where: Geffen Playhouse, Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, 10886 LeConte Ave., Westwood

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, 3 and 7 p.m. Wednesday, 5 and 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Schedule varies weekly.

Ends: Dec. 18

Price: $49

Contact: (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.com

Running Time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

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