On Stage: Let Trump Be Trump

by Claire Handscombe

Donald Trump meets “The West Wing” in a new work by DC playwright.

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Playwright John Krizel loves “The West Wing.” That’s not unusual for a Washingtonian, and he’s practically a native: a graduate of George Washington University, he’s lived in the area for twelve years, and says he loves the city.

A four-time Jeopardy! winner, Krizel teaches social studies and government to high schoolers. Washington Life sat down with him to talk about his new play. “Let Trump Be Trump” is part of the Capital Fringe Festival and plays six performances at the Eastman Studio Theatre at Gallaudet University between July 8th and 23rd. (Tickets are available here.)

WL: How did you come to write this play?

I have strong political views and have been fascinated by this Trump phenomenon since the Birther stuff five years ago. So he’s been on my radar for a long time. Last year when he announced, I knew I wanted to write something about this. All of a sudden I was like, it needs to be “The West Wing” in a Trump presidency. That was kind of an epiphany, in a way that I really haven’t had before as a writer.

WL: “Let Trump Be Trump” is structured around three episodes of “The West Wing.” Which three?

The main one, in terms of plot, is “Five Votes Down.” I was trying to think about a prototypical West Wing episode – they’re all in pursuit of a common goal and all the characters are playing different roles in that. I had to make tough choices about who to focus on, because theatre is very different than television. So I studied more – I read “A Few Good Men” and I watched the Steve Jobs film and “The Social Network.” Sorkin’s writing is so quick and so much is happening in it. Those rhythms lend themselves so well to television, because you can pack so much into an episode, but I had to write a little bit slower and I had to cut out some characters. So I cut out Donna. I wanted a Charlie, I couldn’t get a Charlie in. So I have a Sam, a CJ, a Danny Concannon, a Leo, and I have a Josh/Toby combination, and then I have a Congressman, whose name is Stackhouse.

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So “Five Votes Down,” because it was the White House versus Congress, and it’s trying to get a bill passed, and that’s easy for people to latch onto, I think. I’m expecting people to see the show that are not familiar with “The West Wing,” and I wanted them to be able to appreciate it. “Let Bartlet be Bartlet,” “Five Votes Down,” and then the Pilot.

WL: And you have some phrases typical of Sorkin in there?

I watched that Sorkinisms supercut, and wrote down every single one. So there’s “not for nothing”, “ to say nothing of the fact”, “screwed with their pants on”. I threw a “six to five and pick ‘em” in there. I have “I’m never ever sick at sea”. I love Sorkin’s writing so much. I just find it the most beautiful. It inspires me to write. But I hate “I am never ever sick at sea” because I think that is just a little too much. No-one else knows what that means — that’s a deep reference and most people aren’t conversant in “HMS Pinafore.” And I hate it but I also love it, so I had to put in the play.

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A good friend of mine, Paul Lysek, is directing. He’s a wonderful theatre person in DC. He shares this sensibility with me. And so there are things that he’s thrown in that are Sorkiny kind of things, and they’re great touches. He’s terrific.

WL: Do you listen to the “West Wing Weekly” podcast?

I love it and it really helped me also. They crystallize so many things about the writing that are so good to pick up on and the structure of things. As a writer it’s just invaluable, and as a fan of the show of course.

WL: The Venn diagram intersection of Trump supporters and West Wing fans, I imagine, is not huge. Given that, how do you think West Wing fans are going to feel about the echoes of Sorkin in this play?

The way that I would describe this to people when I came up with the idea is like, imagine Sam Seaborn — handsome young man, idealistic, fresh faced, but the things that he’s idealistic about are banning immigrants from the country and building a wall between us and Mexico. To me, it was just such a funny and fertile idea. It doesn’t idealise or lionise Trump at all. Everything he’s saying is so antithetical to the characters in the show that it creates that dramatic contrast. That’s where a lot of comedy comes from, so I’m hoping that people get that, that they don’t think that I really am a Trump supporter.

WL: What do you think it is about “The West Wing” that has such enduring appeal?

It’s about the people, the relationships. I think it’s nice to think about the people that work in our politics having pure motives – to see public service as ennobling, rather than disparaging it. As a social studies teacher, it’s something that I hope to instill in my students, that the best way to spend your life is in service of others, whether that be political or public service or other kinds of service.

But I also think it’s the writing – seeing people being really clever is never going to get old. It makes me think about “All About Eve”  – which is one of my favourite movies. The people in “All About Eve” don’t talk like normal people They’re funnier and better and sharper people than we are – that’s why people love it so much.

Lin-Manuel Miranda was writing about the scene in “Hamilton” where it’s Washington and Hamilton arguing in the first act about the duel. He said, this is West Wing, because it’s two people who want the same thing but are opposed in how they want to get to it, which is exactly the conflict in so many West Wing episodes. I think it’s a relatable thing because we all want to do the right thing, we all want to be good people, we all want to live lives of services and create beautiful things but it’s hard to find out actually how to get there. I think the show really captures that.

WL: Which contemporary playwrights do you enjoy?

I really like Annie Baker. Most of my influences are TV writers and screenwriters. I’m a huge Woody Allen fan and I love Larry David in “Seinfeld.” I didn’t have the kind of formal training in theatre that a lot of my peers do and so I always feel a little bit kind of underserved in that regards but I try to see a lot of theatre, and I write reviews for [Washington] City Paper.

WL: I was listening to an interview with Bradley Whitford — he was talking about how people specialise too early now and it’s better to have exposure to a broader range of arts.

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So he would probably be all for you not having gone straight down the play writing track.

If Bradley Whitford approves of me, I’ll take it.

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