While “Angels in America” scribe Tony Kushner isn’t generally perceived as a writer who prefers to work in miniature, his experimental bent in crafting discrete moments and his lavish conceptual energy make the prospect of staging his short works intriguing. Part of the Guthrie Theater’s season dedicated to the playwright, “Tiny Kushner” is a slam-bang series of five plays providing kaleidoscopic windows into the recesses of the artist’s fertile mind.
The opening, “Flip Flop Fly!,” never rises above the level of well-crafted confection. On the moon, and in the afterlife, old-time recording star Lucia Pamela (Valeri Mudek) meets the deposed queen of Albania (Kate Eifrig). Mudek’s sunny demeanor clashes with Eifrig’s outsized chilliness, until we delve into a digression on Americans’ grating optimism. Just as the ideas run out, the pair break into song and dance.
It’s charming, if lightweight, and the charged idea space-shifts with “Terminating or Sonnet LXXV or Lass Meine Schmerzen Nicht Verloren Sein or Ambivalence,” in which a tormented therapist (Eifrig) tries to rid herself of a troublesome patient (J.C. Cutler) while the pair’s lovers (Mudek and Jim Lichtscheidl) hover in the ether.
Here Kushner exhibits his facility with tones both high and low, with riffs ranging on topics from suicide to the comedic implications of our names for anal sex. Director Tony Taccone’s cast pulls together as a charged ensemble, eliciting laughs and instances of electricity that spark without drawing easy conclusions.
Lichtscheidl then proceeds to put on an acting exhibition in the ludicrously challenging “East Coast Ode to Howard Jarvis: a little teleplay in tiny monologues.” Tackling 16 male and seven female characters, he masterfully tells the story of a New York tax-evasion scheme in the 1990s involving public employees. Along the way, he veers from accent to accent, making good on a script about misplaced optimism that could well have been engineered to make a lesser talent self-destruct in public.
“Dr. Arnold A. Hutschnecker in Paradise” posits Richard Nixon’s shrink (Cutler), after his death, enduring an analysis session with the all-seeing angel Metatron (Eifrig). Again smashing the celestial against the mundane, Kushner has his psychiatrist moaning in despair over the prospect of his five weekly sessions with Nixon, then breaking through to unearth his own Hitler fixation. The results are a decidedly mixed bag.
The action veers into the blatantly provocative with “Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy,” in which Laura Bush (Eifrig) discourses on Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” segment from “The Brothers Karamazov” to the ghosts of three invisible Iraqi children. This one-act at first seems a gratuitous swipe at a former first lady, but Eifrig grounds Kushner’s text and crafts an ultimately sympathetic portrait that lays bare some raw unanswered questions from our recent national history.
And therein lies the key to all five works: that sense of sympathy, affection and heart that Kushner brings to these abstract, arm’s-length scenarios. There’s a sense here of expression through misdirection, an outsized conscience revealing itself cerebrally lest emotion take over and a quartet of performers intelligent and skilled enough to convey this reserve with assurance and no shortage of humor.
The production has the feel of a vastly accomplished workshop staging, with minimal props and set. But “Tiny Kushner” exists in its own imaginative realm, engaged in the process of working out the American experience without approval or condemnation. It may well be a sort of accident that it was staged in this form (as the third, smallest component of the Guthrie’s Kushner celebration), but by and large, it’s a fortunate one.