April 18, 2016

This might be seen as singularly bad timing for two plays being presented concurrently here this season: Thomas Bradshaw’s “Carlyle” and Lucas Hnath’s “Hillary and Clinton.” How, after all, do you top a show like the continuing Cirque du Trump? Trust Mr. Bradshaw, one of contemporary theater’s most impish provocateurs, to give it the old college try — and more or less succeed. “Carlyle” is a brash, button-pushing comedy about “how a black person ends up becoming a Republican,” as the title character puts it near the top of the show. Mr. Hnath’s more muted drama focuses on a woman who happens to be named Hillary Clinton and is running for president, although he stresses (not quite convincingly) that she is not actually meant to be that Hillary Clinton. “Carlyle” stars a magnetic James Earl Jones II as a lawyer working for the Republican Party, who is identified as a rising star. But the play teases the audience by repeatedly acknowledging its artifice. In that early monologue, Carlyle tells us it was the Goodman Theater, where the show is being presented, that invited him to perform his life story. (The theater was turned down, he adds, by Colin L. Powell, Condoleezza Rice and others; Ben Carson was willing, but elements of the story he wanted to tell weren’t, um, “very truthful.”) “Carlyle” proceeds as a series of often broadly satirical — and often very funny — scenes from the title character’s life and education, somewhat in the manner of an episode of “Saturday Night Live” devoted to a single theme. But it also tacks toward more general commentary on how African-Americans are depicted in the media, and perceived in the culture. (An early bit mocks stock figures like the “thug” and the “matronly religious” woman.)