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 Magazine, 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 Fly! 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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