The title is not just a pun, but almost an oxymoron. Tony Kushner is not a playwright renowned for his terseness: think of the great sprawling dramatic duvet that is his Angels In America diptych. Even in this collection of one-act plays, his prolixity keeps bursting out: one play has four different titles, one of them after a Shakespeare sonnet, another after an aria from Ariadne auf Naxos. This is also the least “public” of the quintet on show here, and also the least compelling, being a psychiatrist/patient-plus-respective-lovers invention.
Kushner delights in working through known figures: just as McCarthy’s henchman Roy Cohn was a central character in Angels, here Dr Arnold A Hutschnecker in Paradise has Richard Nixon’s
shrink in a therapy session of his own in heaven with the angel Metatron, and even the trivial Flip Flop Fly! features a postmortem encounter on the moon between 20th-century American oddball Lucia Pamela and the late Queen Geraldine of Albania. The two end up duetting on the eponymous song from Pamela’s 1969 album, which she claimed had been recorded on the Moon; it’s a raucous squawk, but still far more melodious in Valeri Mudek and Kate Eifrig’s rendition than the original.
In East Coast Ode To Howard Jarvis, the titular tax-resister does not appear in person, but Kushner has written “a little teleplay in tiny monologues” recounting a version of an actual case in 1996 when numerous New York City employees were found to be making extravagant exemption claims based on information from a website. The piece weaves together hatred of the IRS, militia culture and race in a way that is entertaining and stimulating if not instinctively attuned-to by an audience on this side of the Atlantic.
The strongest piece of all is Only We Who Guard The Mystery Shall Be Unhappy, in which First Lady Laura Bush in her literacy-campaigner guise prepares to read Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” episode to the ghosts of dead Iraqi children. As is typical of Kushner at his best, the piece’s attitudes may be obvious but their expression is richly complex and insightful, and Eifrig is excellent as Mrs Bush. Tony Taccone’s production for Berkeley Repertory Theatre is unfussy, with the four actors reciting set-up stage directions, and Kushner’s material resonates with the Tricycle’s policy of engaged participation in public issues. ()