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'Five Presidents' review: A human look at commanders-in-chief

Mark Jacoby, left, and Steve Sheridan are among

Mark Jacoby, left, and Steve Sheridan are among the "Five Presidents," making its East Coast premiere at By Street Theater, Sag Harbor, through July 19, 2015. Credit: Lenny Stucker

'It's the most exclusive club in the world," one member remarks in "Five Presidents," a new play at Bay Street Theater by the writer for two Emmy-winning presidential dramas.

"But anyone can get in," another member replies.

"Unless you're black."

"Or a woman."

"Who'd be first . . . ," a woman or a black president?

All the title characters in this East Coast premiere chime into speculation about POTUS Emerita Club membership (ex-presidents of the United States, plus incumbent). "Five Presidents," written by Rick Cleveland, who fed lines to Presidents Bartlet (Martin Sheen, "West Wing") and Underwood (Kevin Spacey, "House of Cards") takes on civic meaning in this run-up to the 2016 presidential derby.

Whatever we may think of the current slate of candidates for the highest office in the land, there's some reassurance in realizing we've survived many flawed presidencies.

Four exes and the 1994 White House tenant gather in a green room (Todd Edward Ivins' design) dominated by a portrait of George W. (Washington) for the funeral of the POTUS whose scandal and resignation made the job of president tougher for all who followed. Gerald Ford (38), Jimmy Carter (39), Ronald Reagan (40), George H.W. Bush (41) and Bill Clinton (42) assemble one by one at the presidential library of Richard Nixon (37).

Having pardoned Nixon, Ford has the most at stake in the eulogy he's scheduled to deliver. John Bolger as Nixon's unelected successor presents a sharp and observant Jerry, who's painfully aware that no one else in the room regards him as equal. Bolger's Ford might win a Sag Harbor straw poll.

Martin L'Herault as Carter strikes a balance between affable and pain-in-the-butt do-gooder. Steve Sheridan as Reagan appears overdone in terms of makeup. But then, sometimes, so did the real Ronnie. Sheridan provides glimpses into the Alzheimer's abyss as the ex-actor/president lapses mentally on occasion while dispensing clairvoyant insight on others.

As George the Elder, Mark Jacoby nails the mannerisms of the ex-prez, now 91. It's clear his George has a chip on his shoulder regarding his successor. Brit Whittle doesn't try to "do" Bill Clinton, but he projects commanding-the-room confidence, and insecurities when those skills don't work in "The Club."

Mark Clements, who directed premieres of "Five Presidents" at Milwaukee and Arizona Rep companies, shows a sure hand for Cleveland's intriguing fly-on-the-wall colloquy.

Presidents -- especially these five -- are human, too.

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