The Berkeley Rep's 'Tiny Kushner' Is Imaginative But Rarely Moves Beyond Caricature

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'Tiny Kushner' at the Berkeley Rep
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American playwright Tony Kushner, best known for "Angels In America," offers a panoramic study of Americana at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Thrust Stage with "Tiny Kushner." A series of five one-act plays, this production stars only four actors, all of whom are especially deft in the multifaceted performances as multiple personalities. But while these thespians are certainly polished, the characters they're asked to embody often fail to transcend caricature. Stereotypes are fully realized, but director Tony Taccone doesn't push his actors beyond that. In these comedic sketches, some better than others, it is Kushner's language that provides the necessary splash of maturity in an otherwise mixed bag.

The five segments of "Tiny Kushner" are by no means tiny in their ambition and imagination. The first vignette, undoubtedly the most ostentatious one-act, is set on the moon and centers on the dynamic between a failed singer (Valeri Mudek) and the queen of Albania (Kate Eifrig, the most engaging actor onstage), but the twist is that they're both dead. Kushner's allegory of the afterlife, if any, is unclear, and the overwrought mannerisms of the actors abandon humor and become merely cliches.

In act two, Kushner pictures the outdated and overdone consciousness of the neurotic hypochondriac New Yorker with freshness. However, the play becomes cloying as characters narrate their own stage blocking between fits of outrageous dialogue. This marriage of performance and narration is awkward and rarely successful. The aggressive neuroses of these people is something we've seen before, yet the interaction between an analyst and her irreverent patient, self-diagnosed with "thought disorder," contains a witty repartee not always present in the other acts.

"Tiny Kushner" treads uneven ground in its third act, a belabored one-man show reenacting a tax evasion scheme. From an old Italian immigrant to a willful black youth, stereotypes are invoked ad nauseam, and seldom delightfully. Jim Lichtscheidl, the one man in question, is a fabulous talent, but when asked to inhabit these many characters and perform some dubious accents, he only shortchanges himself.

The success of the entire play rests heavily on how much the audience can connect with and be amused by the actors. The confines of a stage tend to solicit overacting, and the performances get mired in camp. But Taccone and his players shine in the following act, another story of the afterlife but starring Nixon's analyst. This is the finest examination of the contemporary milieu as the hilarious J.C. Cutler bemoans an addiction to "Sopranos" DVDs. His gesticulations, short-of-breathness and haphazard delivery are the production's best moments of acting. The darkest and certainly most cautionary sketch follows, as Laura Bush (again the wonderful Eifrig) breaks down over Dostoevsky and the Iraq war. Although Kushner doesn't shed humane or critical light on the president's wife, his social query is most soluble post-intermission.

"Tiny Kushner" is boldest in its lack of moral code. We are not asked to judge or even fully empathize with these flawed, occasionally moronic people. Instead, we are meant to see their place in the contemporary zeitgeist.

However, it's ambiguous as to what that place might be and how some of these sketches address distinct American issues. Then again, Kushner isn't interested in any strict inquiry. His writing is sharp and playful even as it stumbles. While the onstage evocation is occasionally trite and tired, it is quickly swept away by a line of gut-punching, poignant dialogue, as heard from Kushner's own voice.

Help Ryan defeat his addiction of 'Sopranos' DVDs at [email protected]

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