Tiny Kushner – 5 short plays by Tony Kushner – Theater
SKETCH COMEDY FROM A 200-YEAR-OLD RABBI
by Harvey Perr
published December 6, 2009
recently played at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre
“The mishigas that’s in your head!,” my grandmother used to say to me, with no small amount of affection. And then,
with real admonishment, she’d add, “Stop, already!” The thought came back to me as I sat through Tiny Kushner, the evening comprised of five not too tiny theatrical pieces by Tony Kushner, which
recently had a run at the highly respected Berkeley Rep.
Kushner, probably our most prolific gay / Jewish / socialist / political / intellectual playwright, has lots of
mishigas running through his head, and we are indeed grateful that he’s willing to share some of it with us every so often; but, at the
same time, one wants to scold him for being a bit prolix, for wearing his intellectualism on his sleeve, for sharing a joke with us while
keeping himself – and his joke – slightly aloof from us. One wants to laugh. Heaven knows we all need a good laugh in these difficult
times. One wants very much to see what his director, Tony Taccone, sees in him: “A 200-year-old rabbi trying to write good sketch comedy.”
One can certainly hear Kushner roaring uproariously at his own titles, for example, although, to us, they seem merely perplexing, and even
perhaps a trifle overstated. But, of course, if the playlets worked, we wouldn’t care so much about their titles. We might even take the
same pleasure in them that he does.
But the first four plays feel like marking time; one can’t even be sure they were intended to be staged. As it
happens, they are staged well, and acted very nicely indeed, but they provide little spasms of restrained laughter rather than a sustained
joyousness. And, more often than not, they induce head-shaking puzzlement.
“Flip Flop Fly!” pits a weary and corrupt old Europe in the person of Geraldine, Queen of Albania against a
perpetually innocent America in the person of Lucia Pamela, a singer / songwriter whose “trip to the moon” was the raison d’etre for both
her fame, limited though it may have been, and for her unrelenting perkiness (Valeri Mudek is so good that you want to hug her and slug her
simultaneously). They talk and talk, in whirligigs of language, but it is only when, finally, they do a little dance together that the
piece comes theatrically alive. Sometimes, a little dance is worth a thousand words.
“Terminating or Sonnet LXXV or ‘Lass Meine Schmerzen Nicht Verloren Sein’
or Ambivalence” (which might also be called “The Most Pretentious Title of the Evening,” since I do not know what the 75th sonnet
is, and since it in no way conjures up a German song set to music by Strauss or Wolf, and
since, despite a beautifully mannered manic performance by J.C. Cutler as a gay patient visiting his lesbian therapist while his gay lover
hovers on the sidelines and her lesbian lover hovers on the other side, it doesn’t seem too eager to ‘terminate,’ although, all told,
‘ambivalence’ may be what we end up feeling) and “Dr. Arnold A. Hutschnecker in Paradise” both deal with psychiatry. Since the latter
involves none other than Richard Milhaus Nixon’s therapist, it is somewhat the pithier of the two. But neither sheds any particularly
illuminating or comic insights into psychiatry or homosexuality or Richard Milhaus Nixon (except, of course, that his therapist, who left
Germany with his chutzpah intact for railing against Hitler, felt a need to protect and coddle Nixon while he lived; it is this dichotomy
which one imagines is what drew Kushner to the subject).
In “East Coast Ode to Howard Jarvis: a little teleplay in tiny monologues,” Kushner finally succumbs to playwriting,
creating a series of characters, not necessarily connected to each other, who create, together, a mesmeric portrait of a world gone awry,
and all of it placed into the mouth of a single actor, Jim Lichtscheidl, who boldly turns this theatrical high-wire trick into virtuosic
showmanship of the highest order. In the end. however, it is the performance, I feel, rather than the play, which arouses in the audience
such a spontaneous burst of applause. This part of the evening also moves at such an accelerated speed that swiftness becomes its own
reward. It is easy for any sane person to want to hate Jarvis, an anti-tax activist and a shrill harbinger of some men who can be seen
regularly these days on Fox News, as much as one suspects Kushner does, but, again, what Kushner is getting at gets lost in the jumble of
pyrotechics. This one requires reading first, something this reviewer admits he didn’t do.
If I have suggested that the entire evening exists because we want more and more from the
playwright who gave us Angels in America and Homebody:
Kabul and Caroline, or Change, regardless of their quality, I apologize. But one expects, if
nothing else, clarity from our most eloquent contemporary playwright, not stammering and sputtering. And fortunately, for us and for the
evening, Tony Kushner –the Tony Kushner we have looked to for our sanity as well as for our pleasure – hits his stride in the final and most
stunning play, “Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy.”
In this play, Kushner has imagined the unimaginable: Laura Bush coming to read to three dead Iraqi children. The
book she holds in her hands, in the prelude to reading, looks suspiciously like what we think Laura Bush would read: the Holy Bible. But
what she chooses to read from instead – and this is the kind of radical conceit that only Kushner could think of, and, better yet, execute
with such pitiless wit and dark brilliance – that holier of literature’s bibles, The Brothers
Karamazov. He has put into Laura Bush’s mouth, without losing a comic beat, the most vivid interpretation of the Grand Inquisitor
chapter you’re ever likely to hear, and which proves to be a gorgeous introduction to Peter Brooks’s haunting version of the same material.
And, in her pitch-perfect characterization of Mrs. Bush, Kate Eifrig projects an alarming mixture of confidence, vulnerability, surprise,
confusion and, most peculiarly, enlightenment.
So, yes, Tony Kushner comes through at last. But one cannot discount the yawns one has to suppress through most of
the evening, before rousingly being awakened by the best kind of alarm the theater provides: a good play.
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com