It is difficult to know where to begin talking about A Turtle on a Fence Post, Hank Morris’s loosely autobiographical off-Broadway musical, whose revisionist take on his criminal history splits its pants straddling the line between mediocre variety show and insincere apologia.
If you’re not familiar with the backstory, Morris is part of the reason why New York state pensions are forbidden from using primary placement agents. In November 2010, the Democrat operative plead guilty to one count of securities fraud, admitting he used his political connections to orchestrate a pay-to-play scheme brokering access to New York Common State Common Retirement Fund. Then-state comptroller Alan Hevesi, for whom Morris was top aide, admitted to stuffing $1 million in his pockets as part of the scheme.
Given this, it turns the stomach a bit when a seasoned actor in a slicked-back grey hairpiece suggests, in song, that he was the victim of clumsy political targeting, rather than accepting any culpability for his part in the fraud. It is particularly distasteful given the way a certain reality star in a slicked-back orange hair piece recently flaunted his corruption at the nation’s highest political office.
When it’s not cashing in on the plummeting stock of recently disgraced New York political institution Andrew Cuomo – who purportedly advanced his personal vendetta against Morris for refusing to run his (ultimately successful) gubernatorial campaign, if the plot is to be believed – the play extolls the value of empathy for the denizens of the American prison system.
“This is a play about prison,” the eponymous opening number declares on stage of the show-within-a-show at the Ha Ha Ha Hecklers Comedy Club, where the Morris character emcees and tells jokes in front of two snares and a hi-hat.
The play grabs limply at a moral high ground by lamenting the effect of prison on one’s emotional life – specifically Morris’s own. In other words, a rich white man goes to prison and discovers, much to his surprise, that it’s not great.
There are a few painfully two-dimensional caricatures of fellow prisoners, who are Black, that serve as foils for Morris’s thin character development. There’s Z, the intimidating inmate who is secretly a sensitive painter, and SARS Virus (you read that right) whose ‘infectious’ personality appears to mark the latest iteration of American minstrelsy in the White Baby Boomer zeitgeist.
The spectre of Cuomo lingers around the performance – his character even makes a brief appearance to berate Morris. The playbill sports a manifesto of sorts named Andrew and Me, written by Morris himself, to “set the record straight” on the events of a decade ago. While the title makes bold Morris’s rivalry with the fallen governor, the piece itself continues his abdication of personal responsibility.
In the emotional climax of the play, our fictitious Hank valiantly conquers his guilt over pleading guilty, despite having done nothing wrong. Because, the play sardonically asks its audience, “Aren’t we all guilty of something?”