Tricycle Theatre Autumn 2010
Tony Kushner wrote one undeniably great play, the epic two-part Angels In America, but almost everything else of his I've seen has left me cold. And I fear that this programme of five short pieces offers little to change that imbalance.
This production comes intact from Minneapolis' Guthrie Theatre with American director, designers and cast. The five playlets range from light and trivial to dark and serious, with the two at either end of the spectrum (and either end of the evening) most successful.
Starting things off, 'Flip Flop Fly' imagines two minor twentieth century figures, the American entertainer Lucia Pamela and the never-reigning Queen Geraldine of Albania, meeting on the moon after their deaths.
Although both are imagined and played as cartoons, the hillbilly and the stuffy dowager, the high spirits of the one eventually win the other over in what amounts to a celebration of American optimism and self-invention.
'Terminating,' built around a psychiatrist ending a patient's treatment, is little more than a variant on the hoary shrink-is-as-crazy-as-client joke, despite the clever incorporation of chunks of Shakespeare and the ghostly presence of each party's lovers.
'East Coast Ode to Howard Jarvis' is evidently an unproduced TV script here read and played by a single actor, presenting as comedy the facts of a minor news story, when a large number of New York City employees were caught cheating on their income tax.
'Dr. Arnold A Hutschnecker in Paradise' imagines the psychiatrist who actually treated Richard Nixon while he was President still kvetching about his patient in heaven and voicing his opinion that it can all be traced back to an unloving mother.
If all of these are essentially over-extended jokes, the final piece is both serious and powerful. Building on the fact that Mrs. George W. Bush frequently created photo ops promoting literacy by reading in classrooms, 'Only We Who Guard The Mystery Shall Be Unhappy' places her in heaven where an angel asks her to read to dead Iraqi children.
Kushner recognises her to be an honourable and feeling woman, and the play generates some sympathy for her as she struggles between her pity for the children and her need to believe that what her husband did was right.
Dostoyevsky is dragged in a bit awkwardly (though Mrs. Bush is known to have read him), with the Grand Inquisitor episode cited as a gloss on her - and, by extension, America's - temptation to give up all moral responsibility to their leaders, to save themselves the pain of making choices.
If the details of the argument don't quite hang together, the play's sympathy for the woman, and thus for a country that desperately needs to believe it is doing right even when the evidence suggests otherwise, is a deeply moving corrective to knee-jerk anti-Americanism.
Tony Taccone's direction is smooth and assured, and each of the four performers is given opportunities to display their strengths and versatility – Jim Lichscheidl (patient's lover and tax story), Valeri Mudek (Pamela, shrink's lover, angel), Kate Eifrig (Geraldine, shrink, Laura Bush) and J C Cutler (patient, Hutschnecker).
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Review of Tiny Kushner - Tricycle Theatre 2010