Compared to Tony Kushner’s two-part, 7 hour long opus, “Angels in America”, “Tiny Kushner” – at 2 hours and 20 minutes, is tiny indeed. But not tiny enough.
Angels, a (true) work of staggering genius, is not one minute too long. The new evening of five one-acts (which opened on Wednesday at Berkeley Rep.) is about three acts too long.
For Kushner-philes, these new works offer yet five more glimpses into the mind and preoccupations of a still living genius. Period.
But the bulk of these fleeting notions-as-theater are not theater, but incomplete tracts; a collection of dramatized post-it notes.
Still. They’re by Tony Kushner and crumbly tiny Kushner is better than no Kushner, perhaps.
“Flip Flop Fly”, the first play, is delicious silliness. A preposterous, surreal situation is infused with political history and the clash of real-life historic figures.
Kushner plucks an absolutely obscure historic figure – Lucia Pamela, an eccentric singer and bandleader and plops her on the moon with her antithesis the exiled Queen of Albania.
Valeri Mudek is wacko-adorable as the accordion playing loon, who is sheer mid-western golly-gee optimism. And probably insane. She lives on the moon.
Kate Eifrig plays the severe Eastern European queen, who had been on the wrong side of Nazism, fascism and military invasion.
One woman’s pluckish lunar habitation is another woman’s purgatory. Their oil and water conflux is zany and thought provoking as homespun American can-do gumption and/or frivolity meets the weight of history and the old world.
Another quirky and surreal comment on America’s relationship with the world is the last of the five plays, “Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy.” Here, Eifrig plays Laura Bush in a classroom reading to a group of Iraqi children. Who are dead.
Mrs. Bush grapples with her role as the wife of the President and strives to reconcile it with her humanity.
As The First Lady faces the children (Annie Smart’s set design is three empty children’s chairs facing Laura Bush) and learns of their nightmarish murders, the Iraqi children recall Dickens' ghost of Christmas past. Here it is ghosts of American bombs past.
Reading from the Brother’s Karamazov, she discusses the nature of freedom, her faith and her world view. “Bushy” (as she calls him), The Grand Inquisitor, Stalin, Hussein and Jesus all come into play and as Laura tries to explain, excuse, impart and justify.
The performance, a brief monologue to empty chairs, is the most compelling play of the evening. With an unsteady balance between regret and resolution, Laura Bush struggles to quiet her guilt and organize her world view. As she speaks, we can see her process; what’s good, what’s bad and what’s free seems to get muddled.
Eifrig’s first lady is a nuanced, ambivalent Laura Bush; the Laura Bush we all imagine must exist.
Tiny Kushner is bookended by these two scripts, both geo-political, one very funny, one not. This may help conceal the weaker middle section. But not very well.
The other three plays range from boring to irritating. One, a shaggy dog tale about tax evasion, municipal workers and militia, is staged in cinematic but interminably tedious snippets.
Two more take place in a psychotherapist’s office and traffic in the tired theology of Freud. Which is so decades ago.
Transference, counter transference, neurosis, mommy neglect. More neurosis. Woody Allen – and many Jews before and after him – did it better. These sketches are simply signposts to something culturally and intellectually meaningful.
In the gimmickier of the two, J.C. Cutler portrays Nixon’s analyst, discussing his famous patient. From an office in heaven, mind you. Kushner inserts various factoids about Nixon’s hang-ups, but this, like some of the other one-acts seem merely like the Who What and Wheres provided by audiences in a improv skit.
Who? Nixon’s analyst! Where? In Paradise! Who? The Queen of Albania! Where? On the Moon! Who? Laura Bush! What? Speaks to dead Iraqi kids!
Of course. Even given fill-in-the-blank parameters, Tony Kushner can run rings around an improv troupe. But that’s too tiny a goal.