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STAGE REVIEW

Whimsy and power in Kushner’s one-acts

Maureen Adduci and Craig Houk in “Dr. Arnold A. Hutschnecker in Paradise.’’ Maureen Adduci and Craig Houk in “Dr. Arnold A. Hutschnecker in Paradise.’’ (Richard Hall/Silverline Images)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / October 4, 2011

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Like a cleanup hitter trying to bunt, a playwright known for epic, sprawling, idea-packed dramas takes on a distinct challenge when working within the limitations of a one-act play.

“Tiny Kushner,’’ now receiving its East Coast premiere in a production by Zeitgeist Stage Company under the direction of David J. Miller, showcases five one-acts by Tony Kushner. The author of the two-part “Angels in America’’ and the nearly four-hour “Homebody/Kabul,’’ Kushner has a secure place on any list of greatest living American playwrights.

Exceptionally well performed by Zeitgeist’s versatile cast of two men and two women, “Tiny Kushner’’ ranges from whimsically entertaining to tedious to unforgettable. Sticking with the baseball analogy, I’d say Kushner goes four for five.

“Flip Flop Fly!’’ depicts a posthumous, purgatorial meeting on the moon between two real-life figures: Lucia Pamela, an eccentric American musician who died at age 98 in 2002, and Geraldine, Queen of Albania, who died that same year at age 87.

We see Lucia (Kara Manson) in her youthful prime, decked out in a tiara, a ball gown, and a sash that reads “Miss St. Louis ’26.’’ She swans about, waving to imaginary crowds while recounting loony tales of a trip she took to the moon in 1969, where she discovered talking pecans and walnuts. Which spoke French, no less.

Listening to all this, a seething Geraldine (Maureen Adduci) - who had to flee with her family in 1939 when Mussolini invaded Albania - spills out her own grievances. Kushner generates comic sparks from this collision between a woman who sees reality as something that can be manufactured according to her own whim and a woman who views herself as a victim of history - a perspective colored in no small part by the sort of self-dramatizing she finds repellent in Lucia.

“Americans!’’ Geraldine sputters. “You make up these fantastic stories! These idiotic invented lives! My life is the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire!’’

Kushner’s weakness for lengthy titles displays itself with the evening’s second offering: “Terminating or Sonnet LXXV or ‘Lass Meine Schmerzen Nicht Verloren Sein’ or Ambivalence.’’ The German phrase, from the opera “Ariadne auf Naxos,’’ means “Let my sorrow and my pain not be in vain.’’

Esther (Manson), a psychoanalyst, is trying to disentangle herself from a schlubby patient, Hendryk (Craig Houk), who is pleading to have sex with her, even though both of them are gay. Periodically, they address their respective lovers: Hendryk vents his feelings of self-loathing to the Shakespearean sonnet-spouting Billygoat (Victor Shopov), while Esther tells her lover, Dymphna (Adduci), of her desperate, and so far thwarted, need to have a baby.

The exchanges between Esther and Hendryk are flavored by Kushner’s playful way with language - Esther and Hendryk quibble over the distinction between homonyms and homophones - and by the playwright’s knack for the illuminating digression. At one point, Hendryk describes tattoos as “the only arena available to the late 20th century citizen seeking effectivity, historical agency: his or her skin,’’ and says that one fellow’s tattoo verified his existence: “This is how he knows he’s been here. Because it hurt to be.’’

“East Coast Ode to Howard Jarvis: A little teleplay in tiny monologues,’’ inspired by an elaborate tax-evasion scheme by public employees in New York, presents an acting challenge that the talented Shopov meets, shifting rapidly among two dozen characters of varying accents. But even his dexterity can’t make the diffuse parts of “East Coast Ode’’ add up to a satisfying whole.

“Dr. Arnold A. Hutschnecker in Paradise’’ features a conversation between Richard Nixon’s psychiatrist, played by Houk, and a “Recording Angel’’ called Metatron (Adduci).

The play has fun with concepts of mortality (Nixon apparently is refusing to believe he is dead) and with the fact that Nixon’s tangled psyche represented such an embarrassment of riches to a shrink.

But the best reason to see “Tiny Kushner’’ is “Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy.’’ In description, this work might sound like a ham-handed polemic, but in performance, it is powerfully moving.

The conceit is that Laura Bush, played by Adduci, is paying a visit to Paradise to read to three (unseen) dead Iraqi children in February 2003, one month before the American invasion of Iraq. The children are overseen by a gentle angel (Manson), who tells Mrs. Bush that they are just a few of the children, possibly numbering in the hundreds of thousands, who have died as a result of bombings in the first Gulf War, power outages, or diseases stemming from sanctions on Iraq.

At first, Mrs. Bush replies with chirpy talking points. But then, as she begins to tell the children of her love for Fyodor Dostoevsky, and as she talks about Dostoevsky’s spiritual inquiries into good and evil in “The Brothers Karamazov,’’ her words begin to add up to a self-indictment. Her reaction takes her by surprise, it surprises us in turn with its poignancy, and it proves Kushner doesn’t need more than one act to have a pronounced impact.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

TINY KUSHNER

An evening of short plays by Tony Kushner

Directed by David J. Miller

Sets, David J. Miller. Lights, Chris Fournier. Costumes, Fabian Aguilar. Sound, Walter Eduardo.

Presented by Zeitgeist Stage Company. At: Plaza Black Box Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through Oct. 22. Tickets $25-$30. 617-933-8600, www.zeitgeiststage.com