Colm O'Reilly and Brian Shaw in Jim Lehrer and the Theater and Its Double and Jim Lehrer’s Double Credit: Evan Hanover

“A violent and concentrated action is a kind of lyricism: it summons up supernatural images, a bloodstream of images, a bleeding spurt of images in the poet’s head and in the spectator’s as well.”

—Antonin Artaud in The Theater and Its Double

“What rough beast . . . ?” —W.B. Yeats

Poor Jim Lehrer. Like those hapless souls in horror movies who somehow catch Satan’s eye, the distinguished former PBS news anchor has stumbled into Mickle Maher‘s sights. A decade ago, in The Strangerer, Maher presented Lehrer as the moderator of a presidential debate between George Bush and John Kerry, only to have Bush try to kill him—”On the air,” Reader critic Albert Williams noted, “several times, using a knife, a handgun, a pillow, a bottle of cyanide, even a Balinese kris.”

Now 82 and retired, Lehrer still isn’t safe. Maher’s ingenious, eccentric, quietly devastating new play—produced by Theater Oobleck and titled Jim Lehrer and the Theater and Its Double and Jim Lehrer’s Double, obviously with an eye to big-time merchandising possibilities—portrays Lehrer as a useless if impeccably dressed codger, shuffling around his stately old residence, keeping up morale by pretending to anchor reports about his daily life. (“Good evening, from the small sitting room just off the foyer at the entrance of my spacious and casually furnished D.C. suburban home . . . “) He even swivels in his chair every so often to face a nonexistent second camera as he tries to tease a few minutes of never-to-air time out of a questionnaire he’s received in anticipation of the local village council election.

Maher’s Lehrer comes across at first as the quintessence of loneliness. But he’s not completely solitary. Before long he’s joined by his housemate and amiable doppelganger, Jim Lehrer II—apparently not an imaginary construct but a flesh-and-blood person. Lehrer II certainly bleeds, anyway, making his entrance with a cut on his head, a torn suit, and a red-stained shirt. A playwright who’s just attended the premiere of his first staged script, this second Lehrer explains that he had to fight his way free of audience members bent on tearing him to bits in a fit of bacchic frenzy. Not exactly what Artaud meant by the Theater of Cruelty, but not so far off either.

Having tracked down the wandering Lehrer I and reminded him that they’re roomies, Lehrer II tries to help with the questionnaire—which has turned out to be an ethical minefield. But he’s still spooked. He can’t reason out what went wrong at the theater. He worries that some obsessed patron of the arts managed to follow him home, even though he covered his tracks by fleeing down a creek like the Tim Robbins character in The Shawshank Redemption. Lehrer II jumps at every noise. And sure enough . . . 

But let’s not spoil it. Jim Lehrer and is as much a goof on gothic horror as anything else. Something does go bump in the night at the Lehrer manse.

That something, when it arrives, has nothing to do with, say, a homicidal orangutan. Yet it’s not entirely unlike a heart beating beneath floorboards. Think of it as the heart beating beneath the floorboards of our present political moment. Beneath the floorboards of homes and businesses, state houses and campaign headquarters and inaugural platforms all over the United States. Why does Maher have to go and pick on good-hearted, fair-minded, rational, scrupulous, courtly Jim Lehrer? Precisely because of his public virtues. Lehrer embodies that Enlightenment liberalism, that ideal of informed civic responsibility that’s supposed to make American democracy possible. Doddering now, broadcasting only to himself, he doesn’t hear the heartbeat. As someone in the play says, “New monsters have come. From under the mirror.” What we’re seeing here is less the treason of the intellectuals than their confused senescence. They look in Maher’s mirror and see a double they don’t recognize.

Even at 70 minutes, Jim Lehrer and has its longueurs as Maher—who’s scrupulous, like Lehrer—works out the implications of his conceit. It’s also heady with allusion. But the opening passages are hilarious and the closing ones terrifying, thanks in large part to Colm O’Reilly and Brian Shaw, two extraordinary actors who have a long history of working with Maher. Maher himself is as good a playwright as any working in America today. He does small, smart, and edgy, though, so who knows if he’ll get the acknowledgment he deserves. Then again, we may need him in the near future, to identify those thump-thump beats we keep hearing.   v