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Kushner works are ‘Tiny’ in name only

Playwright draws on his epic plays - and real life

By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / September 30, 2011

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It’s not that Tony Kushner disagrees with people who say political theater is always preaching to the converted. It’s that he doesn’t think that’s a valid argument against it.

“I mean, if you’re a preacher, if you’re on the pulpit or on the stage talking to people in an audience, you’re very likely going to be talking to people who all agreed to come into your church,’’ he said. “John Donne didn’t go into the shtetls of Eastern Europe and deliver those sermons to Orthodox Jews, and Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t delivering his sermons in a mosque. All the prophets of the Bible are speaking to the Israelites. A preacher is not an evangelist.’’

Conversion, then, is not particularly of interest to the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, whose collection of one-acts, “Tiny Kushner,’’ makes its East Coast premiere tonight at Zeitgeist Stage Company. Neither, he said, is certainty.

“Faith is called faith because it has the actual necessary concomitant, which is immense doubt and confusion,’’ he said by phone as he drove through Louisiana, where he was visiting his father. “And great preachers know that what their flock needs, what the converts need, what their fellow believers need is what they need, which is we’ll all hold hands together. We’ll walk forward into what we used to call in medieval studies the cloud of unknowing.’’

While Kushner, 55, noted that he does not think of his audience as a flock, confusion and uncertainty are where he believes good theater should come from.

If that is the fount of his work, headlines and history books often provide the fodder - perhaps most famously in the person of Roy Cohn, the lawyer and onetime Joseph McCarthy henchman, who remains vehemently closeted as he dies from AIDS in Kushner’s “Angels in America.’’

Of the five plays in “Tiny Kushner,’’ four borrow characters and events from real life. One such character is Laura Bush, reading Dostoyevsky to dead Iraqi children in a controversial 2003 piece called “Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy.’’ Kushner wrote it in a single night, after speaking at a demonstration in front of the United Nations on the eve of the Iraq war.

“ ‘Only We’ stands out for me as a play that I really wrote in anger. But I feel like, in the end, it’s not a particularly angry play,’’ he said.

It was published that March in The Nation magazine as the first scene of what Kushner then envisioned as a larger work - an idea he has not yet entirely discarded. Even some among The Nation’s liberal-leaning readership, however, objected to his choice of the then-first lady as a “cheap and easy target,’’ said Kushner, who argues that that’s a misperception.

“The play is not about what an idiot Laura Bush is. Laura Bush is not an idiot, and she actually comes to feel - I think, I hope - somewhat familiar,’’ he said. “The expectation that’s set up at the beginning, that we’re just gonna make fun of this woman because she has a Texas accent and she dares to read Dostoyevsky and we all know we’re so much smarter than her - she’s clearly very smart, and we’re not smarter than her, and she really has absorbed Dostoyevsky and understands it and understands its contradictions and finds herself in the same place we all are in.’’

Given that piece’s presence, as well as the playwright’s status as one of the foremost public intellectuals of the American left, it’s little wonder that Zeitgeist artistic director David J. Miller prefers to talk up the fact that three of the plays in “Tiny Kushner’’ are comedies.

“I’m a big fan of Kushner’s work, but his stuff is kind of epic,’’ said Miller, who directed Kushner’s “Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches,’’ in 1999 at Curtain Call Theatre in Braintree. “With ‘Tiny Kushner,’ it was just an opportunity to do a piece of his which was more approachable.’’

“Kushner is also kind of heavy lifting,’’ added Miller, who is directing the Zeitgeist production, “and this is him in a much lighter and more frivolous mood.’’

Premiered by the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 2009, “Tiny Kushner’’ is meant to be performed by four actors, two men and two women. Many of the stage directions are spoken.

The collection begins with “Flip Flop Fly!,’’ originally written for The New York Times Magazine’s year-end “The Lives They Lived’’ issue in 2002. Set on the moon, it imagines a meeting in the afterlife of eccentric semi-celebrity musician Lucia Pamela and Geraldine, Queen of Albania, both of whom died that year. Kushner, who by then had written short plays for two previous “Lives They Lived’’ issues, had clipped their obituaries and based “Flip Flop Fly!’’ on them.

“Dr. Arnold A. Hutschnecker in Paradise,’’ from 2001, is another he wrote for the Times Magazine. It’s set in “a beautiful room in a pre-war-Upper-West-Side-type apartment building in Paradise,’’ where Hutschnecker, Richard Nixon’s psychotherapist, is meeting with Metatron, the Recording Angel, and talking about his patient.

“Terminating,’’ from 1998, is set in a psychoanalyst’s office, and is the only one of the plays not taken from history or recent events. It is, however, dedicated to Kushner’s former analyst. His play “Homebody/Kabul,’’ he wrote in the introduction to that published text, is “the proof of the pudding’’ of her work with him.

There is also “East Coast Ode to Howard Jarvis,’’ from 1996, originally a teleplay commissioned by Alec Baldwin for HBO. A series of monologues, it’s based on a bizarre tax-avoidance scheme that flourished among New York City public employees in the ’90s.

Kushner sees common themes connecting the plays, though he did not want to articulate what those are. He prefers, he said, to leave interpretation to the audience.

But he did say what his work is not.

“I don’t see my plays as political acts,’’ he said. “My plays are plays. They’re entertainments.’’

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollins-hughes @globe.com.

TINY KUSHNER Presented by Zeitgeist Stage Company

At: Plaza Black Box Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, today through Oct. 22. Tickets: $20-$30; seniors and students $20; pay-what-you-can Wednesdays ($7 minimum). 617-933-8600, www.BostonTheatreScene.com