Theater Review: Bill Frist Dazzles in "Clairvoyant"

New York, October 2, 2010 -- The surprisingly versatile physician and former senator Bill Frist, making his Broadway debut, stars in an inspired one-man show here at the 47th Street Theater. "Clairvoyant" is the tale of a man beset by demons, a singularity of senses torn to tatters by pugnacious persecutors, who triumphs against the odds with the inspiring resolve and stamina of a dung beetle carrying an elephant's offal on his head. Frist plays five characters, all named Bill Frist, engaging in an intricate and brilliantly choreographed series of monologues and multi-part dialogues with himself to the point where a delighted and emotionally ravaged audience is left gasping.

Part autobiography, part fancy, part fanciful autobiography, "Clairvoyant" depicts the tribulations of a man of honor and decency who is brought to ruin by his own misunderstood extra-sensory powers. Act I opens with Frist, clad in a cellophane body-suit and aluminum-foil skull pad, prognosticating mechanically across a wide range of seemingly unrelated topics—next spring's weather in Cambodia, Sudan's yam harvest in the year 2059—but then abruptly changing gears and persona with a dramatic power-zoom in on the stock market.

A mere ten minutes in, the production succeeds stunningly at this point by hooking the already mesmerized public with a sudden real-life connection. The real-life Frist, who was once Senate Majority Leader, was toppled from his powerful position following a series of accusations and SEC investigations into purportedly illegal, or at least unethical, stock dealings. Rumor has it Frist "foresaw" the downfall of his family business, the HCA hospital chain, in a vision, prompting him to advise his investment counselors to sell all the stock held by himself, his wife and his children, mere weeks before the stock plummeted. He saved millions on the deal.

Frist explained repeatedly at the time that despite the fact that his father and brother founded the company and that his brother remains a company director, and that he had held the stock for over five years while serving on Senate committees that presented clear conflicts of interest, all the while vehemently denying that any conflict of interest was present, and that he had no knowledge of how much HCA stock he owned, if any, and that he was disallowed by Senate rules to dictate any stock trades in his blind trust unless he had substantially changed professional positions, which he hadn't, he unloaded the stock when he did because he wanted to dispel any appearance of a conflict of interest, not because he had received any kind of insider indication from, for example, his brother, that the stock was about to tumble.

This circular and paradoxical argument is brilliantly enacted by Frist's multiple personae in "Clairvoyant", coming to a head in the stroboscopic musical climax of Act II, Scene II, wherein Frist blinks rapidly from stage right to stage left and positions in between, juggling seven tightly rolled sheaves of bearer bonds together with a stethoscope and a 2000-pound computerized axial tomography scan machine.

While the allegations of the real Frist's parade of wrongdoing were never substantiated and no criminal conviction was ever forthcoming, the overwhelming appearance of impropriety was such that Frist was forced to step down from his position as the most powerful man in the U.S. Senate, and eventually to retire from politics altogether. This somber transition is bleakly portrayed in the wrenching celery-stalk-as-gavel dream sequence of Act II.

At frequent intervals throughout the one-man spectacle, Frist will cleverly pause the action and retire to one side of the stage. A single spot frames him in ghostly silhouette as he enunciates genuine, live predictions, again and again proving to a first disbelieving, then marveling, then embracing audience his unique powers of clairvoyance. From Act I, Scene III:

"When the lights go down as the intermission draws to a close tonight, yet before the curtain will rise, five or more men will cough and a woman will speak the words, in a loud New Jersey accent, 'I'm just saying! Oh, sorry.'"

Even the most hardened skeptics in the audience were converted to true believers as prediction after prediction came true.

Perhaps the most heart-rending moment occurs near the finale, when Frist, at perhaps the lowest emotional ebb of the production, performs a modern interpretive ballet decrying the practice of "fey-bashing", a term coined by Frist to describe the persecution he has suffered due to his rare prognosticative gift. The dialogue is as economically poetic as it is intense:

"So I'm here, I'm fey. Get used to it. I see the same shit, different day."

No one can leave this show without feeling uplifted, spiritually strengthened, and more conversant in the tangled ethical maelstrom that is illegal insider trading. The sense one absorbs is that of positive ions after a thunderstorm. If you catch only one theatrical production this season, make it Bill Frist in "Clairvoyant".

"Clairvoyant", a Bill Frist Production.
Written, directed and played by Bill Frist.
47th Street Theater
304 W. 47th St., Manhattan
Tickets: $85-$140

By Ion Zwitter, Avant News Editor

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