Not-So-Tiny Kushner

Playwright funnels big ideas through a series of one-acts at Berkeley Rep.

A glimpse into the mind of Tony Kushner would reveal a weird
mish-mash of images: dictators in “severely elegant” clothing; pageant
queens; tax forms; castrating female therapists; disgraced American
politicians; soulless beauties; and of course, psychiatrists’ offices
— mostly in weird places (i.e., Paradise). Such is the stuff of
Tiny Kushner, a series of one-acts with four talented
performers, each playing multiple roles. The set includes four
well-written, highly imaginative plays and one well-written but
not-so-imaginative play, each featuring one or two actors while another
skulks in the wings, reading Kushner’s stage directions. It’s a
fascinating experiment for a playwright who has trouble narrowing the
scope of his ideas. The format doesn’t always work, but when it does,
it’s mesmerizing.

Most of these one-acts create a story by coupling two people who
should never be caught dead together. In some cases they are caught
dead together, like the ex-pageant queen and congenital fabricator
Lucia Pamela (Valeri Mudek), who encounters the exiled Queen Geraldine
of Albania (Kate Eifrig) somewhere on the moon, some time after both
have died. Published seven years ago in The New York Times
, the piece was, in fact, a double-obituary for the real
singer-songwriter Lucia Pamela, and real Queen Geraldine, who would
both remain unheralded were it not for Kushner. Called Flip Flop
the piece quickly devolves into a well-scripted cat fight. Its
humor relies partly on a culture clash between trashy Midwestern
America and European high culture, and partly on the apparent symmetry
between the two characters. They close out with a stiff dance number
that includes high kicks and fascist salutes.

Similar themes unfold in the second play, Terminating or
Sonnet LXXV or “Lass Meine Schmerzen Nicht Verloren Sein”
or Ambivalence (brevity not being Kushner’s forte), and fourth
play, Dr. Arnold Huschnecker in Paradise. Both take place in
psychiatrists’ offices and both revel in psychobabble. The difference
here is in the writing. Dr. Arnold Huschnecker began life as an
obituary (for Richard Nixon, in this case, who is played by the
excellent J.C. Cutler), so it’s littered with setups and punchlines.
References to The Sopranos and The Manchurian Candidate
will cause pop culture buffs to draw instant parallels, but they
detract from what little storyline the piece contains.
Terminating, in contrast, is a thoroughly excellent piece about
a closeted gay psychiatric patient (Cutler) and his sadistic lesbian
therapist (Eifrig, who also plays analyst to Cutler’s Nixon). It’s the
only piece that really works in threes, though the triangle keeps
shifting — sometimes the third point is his lover, sometimes it’s
her lover, sometimes it’s his parents. The whole thing apparently
derives from a Shakespearean Sonnet. Any English grad student would
have a field day.

The best play by far is East Coast Ode to Howard Jarvis: A Little
Teleplay in Tiny Monologues
. Based on a real story about tax
evasion in New York City, it requires actor Jim Lichtscheidl to play
the parts of roughly a dozen characters, including several cops, a
cop’s punk rock daughter, a know-it-all B-Girl, a woman in the payroll
office, and a spokesperson for the North American White Man’s Freedom
and Liberty Council. The whole scheme begins with one teen’s adventures
in web surfing, which inspires a zig-zag of letters and W2 forms, each
claiming ninety-eight exemptions. A lot of the humor is specific to New
York City, but the plot is so tangled and weird that it’s hard not to
be enthralled.

The only play that really falls flat is the last one, Only We Who
Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy
. It features Eifrig as former
First Lady Laura Bush, reading parts of The Brothers Karamazov
to three dead Iraqi children. The problem with this play isn’t so much
its heavy-handed use of metaphor (and there are a lot of them, from the
three empty chairs to the parallel drawn between Dick Cheney and
Dostoyevsky’s Inquisitor). The problem, rather, is that it already
seems dated, with Bush out of office and the war having shifted to
Afghanistan and Pakistan. It would have worked had Kushner and Eifrig
done a better job of humanizing Laura Bush, or had Kushner applied the
Dostoyevsky in a more interesting way. Here, though, it seems like
caricature, done at a time when the ex-first Lady is barely a blip in
our consciousness.

But now I’m splitting hairs. In the end it’s hard to derogate Tony
Kushner. For all his ostentatiousness, he’s obviously one of the best
playwrights out now, and probably the most well-read. Many factors make
these plays brilliant, from their inter-textuality to their dialogue,
to Kushner’s use of actors (the ones who aren’t speaking, that is) as
furnishings in a room. Perhaps his ideas are too broad to fit in a
single act, but that’s forgivable.

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