Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground

John Rubinstein (Photo credit: Maria Baranova)

John Rubinstein (Photo credit: Maria Baranova)

By: Darryl Reilly

“Who the hell wants to relive my presidency!” So, gripes Dwight David Eisenhower (1890-1969) while conversing on the phone with the editor of his White House memoir in the opening scene of playwright Richard Hellesen’s entertaining biographical solo show, Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground. Mr. Hellesen’s prodigious research is matched by his shrewd selectivity and impeccable command of dramatic writing which pleasingly sustains the production’s length of about two hours with an intermission. It is a definitive theatrical take on the 34th President of the United States. The title refers to the belief that a land owner should make that space better than when they acquired it.

Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground is a grand vehicle for an actor and John Rubinstein is triumphant. With his head shaved and its crown surrounded by white hair, possessed of a trim and animated physique, and speaking in a slightly rumbling old-time American cadence, Mr. Rubinstein offers a tremendous visual, vocal, personable and realistic characterization. Through his arresting stage presence, consummate performing skills and gravitas, he gives us the Eisenhower many of us would like to experience. His titanic performance is informed by his having been a notable show business fixture for over 50 years. He created the title role in the original Broadway production of Pippin, won a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play for Children of a Lesser God in 1980 and has made numerous screen and television appearances. Rubinstein is recreating his role for this New York City Off-Broadway transfer of the acclaimed New Los Angeles Repertory Company premiere production.

John Rubinstein (Photo credit: Maria Baranova)

It is August 1962, the retired 71-year-old Eisenhower is alone in the study of his Gettysburg, Pennsylvania farmhouse; his wife Mamie and their grandchildren are spending the day in town. Hellesen’s book-writing conceit is enhanced by his having Eisenhower incensed over a New York Times article about 75 prominent historians ranking in order of effectiveness the previous 30 U.S. Presidents, excluding John F. Kennedy who was currently in office; Eisenhower is number 22. “It is my fate to stare up at Chester A. Arthur’s whiskers!” Eisenhower turns on a vintage reel-to-reel tape recorder and defensively vents.

“Ike’s greatest hits” is how Hellesen’s smart, breezy and well-crafted treatment could be described. Eisenhower’s hardscrabble beginnings in Texas and Kansas, and his time at West Point are detailed. W.W. I, W.W. II and the Korean War are cited. The liberation of the German concentration camps is rendered. Eisenhower’s tenure as Columbia University’s president and his entry into politics as the victorious Republican Presidential nominee in 1952 are chronicled. Eisenhower extolls his middle-of the-road political stance. There are pragmatic mini takes of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Robert Taft, George Marshall and Nikita Khrushchev; and scathing ones of General Douglas MacArthur and Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. Desegregating the military, striving for Civil Rights and rebuilding the nation’s highways, are among the 1950’s achievements Eisenhower basks in during his narrated era of celebrated peace and prosperity. The 1959 shooting down of a U.S. spy plane by the Russians is regretfully explained. Hellesen offers a rich, precise and comprehensive representation.

Director Peter Ellenstein’s energetic small-scale staging has Rubinstein organically and emphatically moving around for optimum effect. Mr. Ellenstein perfectly renders Hellesen’s concept for the stage with artful simplicity. Scenic designer Michael Deegan’s spacious study is a realistic and well-appointed environment, with a strategic golf bag and clubs on view in a corner, as Eisenhower was mocked by comedians as a feeble golf player during his time in the White House. There is a large picture window from which the bucolic outdoors is displayed and where projection designer Joe Huppert’s well-chosen historical illustrative imagery is shown, his subtle sound design realizes effects and some musical portions. Esquire Jauchem’s crisp lighting design wonderfully bathes the stage in appropriate and varying hues. Costume consultant Sarah G. Conly clothes Rubinstein with period accuracy panache.

John Rubinstein (Photo credit: Maria Baranova)

Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground’s stirring finale has him at an easel engaging in his fulfilling retiree pastime of painting. That pwerful image is accompanied by projections showing subsequent historians’ ascending rankings of his presidency, in 2012 he was listed at number five. Richard Hellesen’s inventive dramatization, Peter Ellenstein’s focused direction and John Rubinstein’s brilliant performance, all lead the audience to applaud that deservedly revisionist accolade.

Eisenhower: This Piece of Ground (through July 30, 2023; return engagement: Oct. 2 – 27, 2023)
New Los Angeles Repertory Company
Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 West 46th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, www.eisenhowertheplay.com
Running time: two hours including one intermission


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