Tiny Kushner

Last night we saw the new Berkeley Rep play, a series of five shorts by Tony Kushner. Three of them—including one that reproduced a real-life incidence of tax fraud in New York City, to no apparent point—were amusing enough, but not particularly inspired. The first and last, however, were vintage Kushner: riveting, wildly imaginative, politically searing, and funny.

Most memorable was the final one-act, which was very high concept, such that I could almost see the thought bubble popping up over Kushner’s head: Laura Bush arrives to read to three Iraqi children. The twist: they’re dead. Killed by American bombs, and not even during either war: between the wars (i.e., all the more galling). What does she read to them? “The Grand Inquisitor,” from The Brothers Karamozov. What is her position on their deaths—and on her husband’s policies? That is the point of the play. Kushner makes her sympathetic, if not blameless, and I left the theater with a lot of feeling for her. (Fantastic fantastic acting, too, by Kate Eifrig.)

My only wish for the script, and this is admittedly a ridiculous wish for a Kushner play, was that it be a little less partisan. In other words, I didn’t want Kushner’s position to be so obvious, and I didn’t want Laura Bush to be quite so simple.

Example: While I can believe that, against her public persona, Laura Bush might feel that she personally will have to pay for the deaths of Iraqi children, I find it much harder to believe that she would be repulsed by her husband. It should be both: She should both love and support her husband and also find the deaths of Iraqi children impossible to bear. That is the world I can imagine her living in, and that is a fascinating and very human place to be.

Instead, Kushner gives us a woman who secretly despises her husband—the ears, the smug self-satisfaction, the learning disabilities—in precisely the ways that liberals do. And that’s more wish fulfillment than provocative theater.

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