You’d expect a better script from two showbiz professionals.
After all, Donald J. Trump, before he was president of the United States, was a television personality and a onetime Broadway producer. (The show was a flop.) And Volodymyr Zelensky, before he was president of Ukraine, was an actor and a comedian.
So why, between them, couldn’t they come up with something better than a ham-handed parody of macho arm-twisting and submissive toadying in the manner of third-rate David Mamet or Harold Pinter?
To be fair, their performance of the material on the morning of July 25 was largely improvised and not meant to be repeated. The working title was “Eyes Only.” Pressure from Congress is what finally forced Mr. Trump to declassify the conversation, putting this act of political theater in the public domain.
It won’t win any prizes for subtlety there; as drama, it’s too clumsy and obvious.
Mr. Mamet, the author of criminal comedies including “American Buffalo” and “Glengarry Glen Ross,” had a much better bead on the poetics of thuggishness. His junk store thieves and real estate scammers observed the ABC rule — “always be closing”— but were patient and strategic in achieving their ends.
Though Mr. Trump is credited as a co-author of “The Art of the Deal,” there is little art to his depiction of the character of “The President” in “Eyes Only.” Unlike Mr. Mamet’s lowlifes, he has no long game; he is incapable of disguising his agenda. Over and over he swerves back to the “favor” he would like from Ukraine: an investigation of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden and his son Hunter.
In so doing, he can’t keep his subtext sub. With a Javelin arms deal and other United States aid hanging in the balance, he turns a line like “Whatever you can do, it’s very important that you do it” into an obvious threat. “Your economy is going to get better and better I predict” is not meant as rosy encouragement.
Mr. Zelensky is a subtler performer; he seems to have read “The Caretaker” and “The Homecoming,” Pinter’s brilliant anatomies of domination and sycophancy. His praise, however frequent and fulsome, is cagey. Right from the start he uses Pinteresque non sequitur as a form of passive-aggression: His first line — “You are absolutely right Mr. President” — is an illogical response to Mr. Trump’s congratulations on winning the Ukrainian election.
And his follow-up choice to echo Mr. Trump’s “drain the swamp” catchphrase is the kind of “yes and” mirroring that blows the minds of sophomores taking their first improv class.
But Mr. Zelensky, too, overplays his hand, at least as far as drama is concerned. He rarely strays for more than a sentence from the endless task of ego petting. “I would like to confess to you that I had an opportunity to learn from you,” he purrs. (That “confess” is a nice touch, though.) “You are a great teacher for us.” Later he reverse-boasts that Mr. Trump’s plane “is probably much better than mine.”
Pinter in his anti-imperialist prime, and even Mr. Mamet in his latter-day billionaire-apologist phase, might have enjoyed the sexual tension of an image like that. (Many of Pinter’s most menacing scenes have homoerotic undertones.) And Mr. Zelensky does seem to be doing whatever he can to arrange a hot presidential date. Do I detect muffled giggles when he says, “I think I should run more often so you can call me more often and we can talk over the phone more often”?
We expect greater finesse from leaders acting on the world stage. Though the firewall between performance and governance has been steadily eroding since the days of Ronald Reagan, it seems to have collapsed altogether when a United States president, famous for blowing off his daily briefings, shows up for his job proudly unrehearsed, without having read the script.
In the theater, that’s called the actor’s nightmare. In the real world, it’s now diplomacy.
Still, despite the lovey dialogue, it’s evident there’s no genuine affection here. Mr. Zelensky is playing Mr. Trump, who proves easily playable. And Mr. Trump, holding the promised Javelin missiles over Mr. Zelensky’s head, is playing him back. Indeed, it’s the obviousness of each man’s agenda, and Mr. Trump’s obliviousness to that obviousness, that makes the scene so banal as stagecraft — and so startling as statecraft.