Bad Theater: Tony Kushner Takes On Laura Bush

"Cutting edge" playwright Tony Kushner has written a series of short one-act plays presently gracing the stage in London's West End. One of them features Laura Bush reading The Brothers Karamazov to some dead Iraqi children. If that's the best the most acclaimed playwright of the last 20 years can do, it's no wonder Broadway is struggling:
Tony Kushner is still best known for his epic fantasia Angels in America. But, even in these five short plays imported from the Guthrie Theatre and Berkeley Rep, he reveals his gift for blending the hallucinatory and the political. And, even though the works are variable in quality, collectively they confirm one character's credo that "ambivalence expands our options".

Tony Taccone's production saves the best till last: a playlet, which caused a scandal in America, in which Laura Bush treats a group of dead Iraqi children to a summation of the Grand Inquisitor's speech from The Brothers Karamazov.

But even here Kushner's polemical fury at the Iraq invasion is qualified by his residual sympathy for Mrs Bush. Having mouthed the conventional platitudes in defence of the war, she is shocked into a guilty awareness, telling the imagined children "we will pay for your deaths one way or another".

As performed, powerfully, by Kate Eifrig, the piece leaves you in two minds about its heroine: a part of her identifies with the grand inquisitor's belief in the impossibility of freedom, while another side craves the absolution that Christ's kiss, in Dostoevsky's narrative, bestows.

It just so happens that I have been reading Laura Bush's Spoken From The Heart, and all I can say is Kushner is not fit to shake the former First Lady's hand, let alone write a tired polemic about her. Bush grew up in a modest middle class home in a dusty Texas town. She worked as a teacher and librarian, often working in inner cities, doing the sort of work that liberals say they approve of, but would never really do themselves. Bush knows more about the flora and fauna of her native state than the whinging urban Greens who make up the environmental movement - and she has done more practical work to protect the environment than a thousand Greenpeace drones waving signs. During the Bush years, Laura Bush visited Afghanistan, spoke out in favor of women's rights, and faced a lot more physical danger than Kushner, who mostly has had to face the occasional bad review.

Most important, Laura Bush was an advocate for - you might want to sit down - literature and literacy. She always talked about her favorite books, including Karamazov. She founded the National Book Festival. You would think a literary guy like Kushner would appreciate that, but, no, he uses that to mock her. Compare that to our uninspiring current First Lady who is known for organic gardens, obesity campaigns, and power shopping.

Kushner, I might add, had one critical and popular success; that being Angels In America. That was 20 years ago. Whatever artistry Kushner may have is subsumed by his political astuteness. He picks his topics and controversies to appeal to urban liberals and critics who want to be able to write about Important Statements, rather than cats. The "genius" of Tony Kushner is as carefully cultivated and protected as the "compassion" of Ted Kennedy - who then never had to answer for his many personal failings.

Appropriately, the play is part of a collection of one-acts titled Tiny Kushner. It certainly does take a small man to write such a mean spirited piece about a classy lady who represents the best of America.

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