Saturday, November 21, 2009

"Tiny Kushner": Angels, Therapists, Politics & Hitler

Five short plays make up the Tiny Kushner program at Berkeley Rep, and I think I had read all of them, at various times, before seeing them last weekend. Two of the plays, "Flip Flop Fly" and "A Shrink in Paradise," were commissioned by the New York Times Magazine for their annual "The Lives They Lived" issue. They came out when I was in high school and I remember going nuts for them--or, more precisely, for what they represented. I thought it was awesome that these short plays stood alongside the nonfiction essays that filled the rest of the magazine! And they were Kushnerian plays too--crazy and imaginative and language-drunk.

But you know, these plays weren't written to be performed, and they suffer somewhat when put onstage. "Flip Flop Fly" dramatizes a meeting--on the moon, after death--between eccentric American singer Lucia Pamela and deposed queen Geraldine of Albania. These women both led fascinating lives, but too much of the play consists of having them shout their biographies at each other. That's fine in a magazine, but not in the theater. The point of the play is that Lucia symbolizes American gumption and optimism and Geraldine symbolizes tragic European decadence, which is clever enough, but not dramatic--if these characters are both symbols and both dead, how much real conflict can there be? Berkeley Rep's staging of this piece concluded with an amusing song-and-dance routine, Lucia moving like a loose-limbed hoofer and Geraldine as though goose-stepping.

"A Shrink in Paradise" is another after-death play, imagining Dr. Arnold Hutschnecker, Richard Nixon's shrink, being counseled by Metatron the Recording Angel (who evidently moonlights as an analyst). It runs into the same problem as "Flip Flop Fly": these characters are not sufficiently dynamic and dramatic. Also, it feels like Kushner is repeating himself. There was already a play, earlier in the evening, that took place in a therapist's office, with the same actors playing therapist and patient. It's yet another Kushner play that involves angels and takes place in a metaphysical realm. The big dramatic payoff is a comparison of Nixon to Hitler, but the big payoff of Kushner's A Bright Room Called Day is a comparison of Reagan and Hitler, so at some point, you want to say "Lay off the Hitler comparisons, Tony!"

Thankfully, in the final play of the evening, "Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy"--the play where Laura Bush reads to the dead Iraqi children--Kushner resists the temptation to compare G.W. Bush to Hitler. All the same, it's another play with an angel in it, and another play that presents a basically static situation, intended to rouse our liberal guilt and protest the Iraq War... it's agitprop, not theater.

The other two plays of the evening aren't available online but you can find them in the collection of minor Kushner works called Death & Taxes. "Terminating," about a gay man who thinks he's in love with his lesbian analyst (and doesn't that sound like a bad Woody Allen joke?) has the characters say a lot of quotable Kushnerian things, but the language gets so dense that I don't know what the point of the play is.

So in the end, the only play that really came off well was "East Coast Ode to Howard Jarvis"--in which Kushner writes à la Anna Deavere Smith, a series of short monologues spoken by diverse characters, all meant to be played by the same actor. Based on a true story, this play is about a bunch of NYC city employees who get in touch with a crazy right-winger to learn how to cheat the tax code and claim that paying income tax is illegal. While it deals with political themes, it's not a hit-you-over-the-head-and-make-you-feel-guilty play like "Only We Who Guard the Mystery." The monologues are engaging and fast-paced, and actor Jim Lichtscheidl transitions effortlessly between all of the characters he plays. And again, Kushner's prescience can stun an audience: this play was written in 2000 or earlier, but the address of the right-wing group's website is The city employees' scheme got discovered and duly punished, but it is disheartening to realize that this anti-tax ideology has only spread...

The bare-bones staging further prevented these plays from coming alive: despite Berkeley Rep's ample resources, scenery was minimal and the actors wore the same costumes throughout. (I was rather impressed with the dark-red satin pantsuit worn by Kate Eifrig: she plays Queen Geraldine, Esther the NYC psychoanalyst, Metatron, and Laura Bush, and somehow her costume works for all of those characters.) All stage directions are read aloud, rather than interpreted; sometimes these are useful, as in "East Coast Ode," but sometimes very obtrusive. In "Only We Who Guard the Mystery," when the Iraqi children open their mouths to talk, Kushner writes that the only sound we hear is "the bird-music from Messiaen's opera St. François d'Assise." Hearing this stage direction read aloud, the audience feels stupid for not knowing their Messiaen, whereas if the sound-op had simply played the music, we wouldn't feel stupid and we'd hear what Kushner had really desired. For, while Kushner intends to make us feel liberal-guilty, I don't think he intends to make us feel stupid.

Photo: Valeri Mudek as Lucia Pamela and Kate Eifrig as Queen Geraldine.

No comments: