Tony Kushner is not known for brevity, but the five short plays being presented at the Guthrie Theater under the banner Tiny Kushner demonstrate that the Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright of the epic Angels in America can go short—and, even at his shortest, he still goes longer than is technically necessary to get his point across.
Of course, Kushner would argue that his plays don’t have specific “points” or messages—that they are three-dimensional conversations traversing several planes of consciousness at once, so good luck squeezing a moral out of them. Indeed, the most prominent quote from Kushner in the event program is, “I’m a playwright, not an essayist, or a poet, or a preacher,” meaning that the ideas Kushner wants to convey are best transported in a dramatic vehicle, one he can park on the moon, or in the afterlife, or on a therapist’s couch.
Even so, the five plays in Tiny Kushner appear to be presented in order of their polemical stridency. As the evening progresses, the layers between the artifice of drama and Kushner’s seething political heart are peeled away, until the final stinging moment, when Kushner’s heart and Laura Bush’s lips collide, and a considerable amount of metaphorical blood is spilled.
It all begins on the moon, however, with a piece the program calls Flip, Flop, Fly! , which previously went by a more descriptive title: Geraldine of Albania Meets Lucia Pamela on the Moon . Which is exactly what happens: Queen Geraldine of Albania (played by Kate Eifrig) dies and is transported to the surface of the moon, where a ditzy blonde American “entertainer” by the name of Lucia Pamela (played by Valeri Mudek) is waiting for her. Both of these characters are historically real people (Pamela claimed to have recorded her only album, Into Outer Space , on the moon), and while they are trapped in lunar purgatory together, the two women engage in a comic argument between the virtues of life in the Old World (suffering, despair, perseverance, hardship) and the New World American ideal of happiness, idealism, optimism, and the power of dreams—even ones that are imaginary.
The action then moves on to a little piece with a big title— Terminating or Sonnet LXXV or “Lass Meine Schmerzen Nicht Verloren Sein” or Ambivalence . Kushner’s years in therapy seem to have provided him with an endless well of psychobabble to draw upon. In this piece, an ambivalently gay man (J. C. Cutler) is protesting the news that his therapist of five years (Kate Eifrig) is ending their relationship. The joke is that the therapist has as many problems as her patient. Which is about all there is to that one—except to note that J.C. Cutler does an outstanding job of playing a guy who is in love with a man but utterly disgusted by the idea of back-door sex.
Jim Lichtscheidl then takes over the stage in a piece called East Coast Ode to Howard Jarvis , an acting tour de force in which he plays 16 different men and seven women, as well as the set designer and director. Howard Jarvis, you’ll recall, was the anti-tax crusader who got California’s Prop. 13 passed in 1978, virtually eliminating property tax in that state. Most of the characters Lichtscheidl plays are city employees (police officers, firemen, social workers, etc.) who are fascinated by any scheme to avoid paying taxes. Which is ironic, of course—outright stupid, in fact—because their salaries come from tax dollars. While humorous in spurts, this piece is about a third longer than it needs to be to get its very clear message across: “Howard Jarvis was an idiot.”
After intermission, the political claws come out. In Dr. Hutschnecker in Paradise , J.C. Cutler plays Dr. Hutschnecker, who is Richard Nixon’s therapist in the afterlife. In trying to figure out what makes (or made) Nixon tick, he consults Metatron, the Recording Angel (Kate Eifrig), who confuses him by suggesting that there may be a psychological connection of sorts between Nixon and, well, Hitler. The connection between Republicanism and Totalitarianism is a common theme in Kushner’s work, as is his penchant for crawling inside the mind of well-known political figures and exposing their blatant hypocrisies to the cruel light of art.
Which brings us to the final play of the evening, Only We Who Guard the Secret Shall Be Unhappy , one of the most shamelessly didactic and scathing pieces of satire Kushner has ever written. The setup is simple: Laura Bush is invited to read to a group of kids, who, it turns out, are actually dead—killed by American military activities in Iraq.
As dramatic setups go, this is about as subtle as sending Dick Cheney on a hunting trip with prisoners from Guantanamo, or making George Bush give Saddam Hussein a bubble bath and a massage. It is interesting, though, because don’t most of us wonder what was going on in Laura Bush’s mind while her husband was trying so hard to hasten Armageddon? Clearly, Kushner is/was mystified, particularly since she used to be a Democrat, and a librarian, and a tireless champion of literacy and reading. The impetus for this piece seems to to be: What could she possibly have been thinking!
What seems to have mystified Kushner the most is that if Laura Bush has actually read the great works of world literature, how could she not be aware of her husband’s moral and political barbarity? In the playlet, the hilarious conceit is that she reads to the kids the famous Grand Inquisitor section of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, which posits a philosophical discussion between Jesus Christ and the Devil over the nature of good and evil. Her explanations to the kids about why they had to die are basically talking points from Donald Rumsfeld (Saddam was a monster. He had to be stopped.), but her conscience, the part that resonates with Dostoyevsky, doesn’t really believe what she’s saying. The scariest part is that her supposed love of literature doesn’t give her the strength to protest or fight the dogma and righteousness of her husband and his army of evangelical warriors. In the end, she chokes back her tears, smiles, and says, “The kiss glows in my heart. But I adhere to my ideas.” Meaning that, for the sake of family harmony she is just going to grin and bear it, no matter how many children die as a result.
Each of these short plays is impressively executed, with scene changes of just a few cubes and chairs and white slabs onto which various backgrounds are projected. As a whole, they’re interesting because they rarely get performed, and have never been done back to back like this. For anyone dazzled by Caroline, Or Change , they also act as a kind of sample platter of Kushner’s other dramatic styles and approaches, which may come in handy for digesting his new play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures , which opens officially on Friday. Check back here on Saturday for a report.
Tiny Kushner: An Evening of Short Plays continues at the Guthrie Theater through June 13.