Laura Bush hits Broadway

A fight breaks out at a new Tony Kushner play as celebrity, political activism and the first lady collide at an antiwar benefit.

By Rebecca Traister
Published August 3, 2004 6:55PM (EDT)

There was already a distinctly odd vibe as people filed into the American Airlines Theater in Manhattan Monday night to hear the first scene of Tony Kushner's new work, "Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy," to be read by Kristen Johnston, Patricia Clarkson and John Cameron Mitchell -- who would portray first lady Laura Bush. Mitchell had organized the reading as a fundraiser for, the online progressive advocacy group.

In place of sophisticated theatergoers or well-appointed benefit denizens, the crowd was instead packed with the young, the shabbily attractive, and the incurably geeky, scrambling for the first-come, first-served seats. As the audience waited for the lights to dim, actress Edie Falco hunkered down in front of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, and both looked mildly appalled when a large section of the orchestra began chanting "Bring it on! Bring it on!" and catcalling the man depositing bottled water onstage for the actors.

This was not a high-minded theater production or a highfalutin charity do. Instead it was the latest fusion of art and grass-roots politics that has been reinvented in the wake of the Iraq war and in anticipation of the November presidential elections. This audience had to fork over only 25 bucks to see this hotly anticipated bit of drama -- and were more than happy to contribute some charged theatrics of their own, as the fervor created by Kushner's scene threatened to spiral slightly out of control.

Johnston was the first to emerge on stage, flashing a T-shirt that bore a pink image of the vice president with the slogan "dick" printed beneath it; the crowd went nuts. They hooted and hollered as the tall "Third Rock from the Sun" actress explained the setup for the reading: Clarkson would portray one of Kushner's itinerant angels and Mitchell, best known for his embodiment of almost-transgendered singer Hedwig, would play the first lady.

Written in the days leading up to the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the unfinished "Only We Who Guard the Mystery ..." had already garnered a lot of attention. Its premise is that literacy-enthusiast Laura has come to read to three dead Iraqi schoolchildren. The work has been published in the Nation, bitterly excoriated in the Boston Globe, and thrashed by the New York Post's Page Six.

Whatever else it may be, the scene is a powerful piece of theater, and Mitchell was eerily convincing as a preternaturally sweet, morally opaque version of the first lady. (Since it was a reading, Mitchell was disappointingly not dressed, as Kushner's stage directions [read by Johnston] suggested, in "a purple plaid ensemble"; instead he sported a red pullover and matching Converse sneakers). Clarkson played seraphic well, sans "Angels in America"-style wings, as she explains to Laura that the children's deaths were a result of the U.S. sanctions and bombings against Iraq.

When the first lady yearns to hug them, Clarkson's angel must explain that they are "incorporeal."

An increasingly discomfited Laura Bush tells the bodiless kids, "It isn't right that you should have had to die because your country is run by an evil man who is accumulating weapons of mass destruction. But he is, you see, he really is ... So it was um, necessary for you to die, sweetie, how awful to say that, but it was, precious."

Most of the scene is devoted to Laura Bush's buildup to reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov," a book she once told a New York Times reporter was her favorite (and which provides the play's title). Along the way she refers to her husband as "Bushy" and "the chimp," rags on Lynn Cheney, complains that "Catholics are so friggin' touchy" and nails John Ashcroft.

"Just between us? Creepy," she says of the attorney general.

She becomes unhinged as she recounts the ways her eyes sometime blur and unblur when deciding whether to root for the Grand Inquisitor or Jesus in her favorite chapter in Karamazov, and whether to root for the triumph of authority or for individual freedom. In the end, a defeated-seeming Laura Bush appears to side with the Inquisitor by saying, in an allusion to the book: "I adhere to my ideas."

As the scene ended to the strains of "Desperado," the audience exploded in applause.

But the actors didn't leave the stage. Instead, Clarkson and Mitchell switched seats and, with Johnston, read a second scene, written by Kushner just that morning. "We got it like an hour ago, so be gentle," Johnston warned.

In the second piece, Clarkson took over the role of Laura Bush and Mitchell played Kushner himself, explaining in character how he'd taken his time completing "Only We Who Guard the Mystery ..." because he'd been "hoping that in three months, the play's subject matter will have exceeded the play's expiration date and returned to Crawford [Texas]."

Most of this second scene involved a sharper-tongued and more observant Laura Bush confronting a slightly defensive Kushner about the first scene.

"I didn't like your skit. It was sort of insulting and I felt like at times the writing was really muddle-headed," said Laura Bush. "I'm nothing like that." Then, eyeing Mitchell with distaste, declared: "You got a drag queen to play me!"

Kushner (again, played by Mitchell) took offense: "John Cameron Mitchell is an established and highly respected stage actor ... and he's not a drag queen. He's a female illusionist."

Later, Kushner explains his fascination with Laura to Laura: "We're all like you!" he exclaims. "We're all getting fucked by your husband!"

Laura Bush calls John Kerry that "gloomy old banana-face you just nominated," and when Kushner protests that the Democrats don't attack countries, she spits out, "No, you all just fire a missile here and a missile there and look like you're thinking real hard about the meaning of missiles."

Johnston soon chimed in (as Kristen Johnston, we're pretty sure) trading Beatrice's lines from "Much Ado About Nothing" (in which Johnston is currently appearing in Central Park) with Laura with such rapidity and passion that at one point Clarkson joyfully spun round in her swivel chair.

The dizzying jumble of genres and allusions earned a huge standing ovation for Kushner, the playwright, who soon took the stage with MoveOn organizer Laura Dawn. The cast reclined on the set for what seemed likely to be an adoring -- if not sycophantic -- question session. A devilish Clarkson even suggested skipping it and heading straight for the bar upstairs.

But when someone asked what MoveOn had planned for the Republican National Convention, things got very tense very quickly.

Dawn explained that the grass-roots political organization -- which had hit a 2.5 million membership just that day -- was not planning demonstrations during the five-day Republican gathering in New York at the end of the month. "They'd [the Republicans] love nothing more than to get a picture of one kid throwing a trash can through a Gap window," she was saying when a voice from the audience began to forcefully object.

"No, no!" shouted a woman, who turned out to be the comedian Reno, from the middle of the orchestra seats. She stood up and looked around, exhorting the crowd to protest anyway. "We have to be out there! Be out on the streets on Sunday August 29! Get out there!" The actors on stage looked surprised, and a little uncomfortable.

Dawn moved quickly to reassure Reno that she believed in protest, but was merely trying to explain why MoveOn had not planned anything. "Yeah, that's cool, sure," said a calmer Reno, sitting down. But a few seats over, someone else piped up. "I'm from San Francisco," the man said by way of explanation. "And we need to do something to counterbalance that convention!"

People began to cheer, and Kushner took over. He said that while he supports the United For Peace And Justice march on Aug. 29, he is keenly aware of how the media will spin things. "Four more years of this guy is unthinkable," said Kushner, "but we need to think about how this is gonna play." The playwright suggested that Bush advisor Karl Rove chose to hold the RNC in a city "that has hated George Bush and which George Bush hates" precisely because he anticipates heated protest, which the party can convert into an "Elect John Kerry and madness and anarchy will follow" message.

"There's nothing to throw! We're on the West Side Highway for Christ's sake!" shouted Reno, in reference to the decision to relegate the march to a closed strip of highway.

"Maybe people could get naked," Clarkson suggested.

Another question from the audience -- "What is the left doing about Ralph Nader?" -- prompted both applause and vitriolic hissing from the crowd. "We don't have the luxury of voting for a third party," responded Dawn, and someone in the crowd shouted, "What third party? They wouldn't nominate him!"

As most of the crowd headed upstairs for a much-needed drink, Falco was headed out the door with her date. She told Salon that she had attended the event "because this is about as important as it gets." Asked if she was freaked out or thrilled by all the post-performance yelling, she said, "It was a combination of the two. I haven't been this close to this. I have seen it in movies, read it in books, but not in my life has it been like this." But she's ready to embrace it.

"I'll go where they tell me," she said of her upcoming campaign activities.

Upstairs at the cocktail party -- 20 bucks admission, cash bar -- Kushner looked relieved to see so many cheerful people. He told Salon that he'd been wary about letting Mitchell stage the reading, mostly because of the mixed reception the work had received so far. "The Boston Globe column freaked me out," he said, noting that he was particularly haunted by accusations that the scene was classist or mean. "They [his critics] claim I take a cheap shot at [Laura]. They say she's not an elected official. But look, I think she is an official of the Bush administration. She works in an office that I pay for, she has a staff that I pay for, she acts as a spokesperson."

He added that the reaction to the scene's publication in the Nation had also troubled him. "I have published things in the Nation before and gotten a huge positive response. This time we got a huge positive response, but also a large negative response. There were people who said 'what a ridiculous thing,' and that it's really evil. They didn't read the play or they didn't get it. But I've also never written about a living person before."

Kushner said he'd also been nervous about how his quickly written new scene would play. When Salon pointed out that in it, he'd made the first lady an instrument of biting criticism toward his own party, he smiled and said, "That's what makes the left the left. One is constantly needing to interrogate one's own assumptions." Of the vocal interrogating going on in the audience that night, Kushner said, "That was thrilling. To have a bunch of people in the same room responding to political material and to have a fight start in an audience? That's great. I loved it." He put his hand to his chest and smiled happily.

Across the room, Clarkson had finally gotten that drink and was kvelling about the fight. "I thought a little blood was going to be shed," she said with her throaty, florid laugh. "It just shows you that even though people have this knee-jerk reaction to an organization like MoveOn -- like they're all left-wing deep, deep liberals -- actually they are a cross-section of many different kinds of Democrats." The actress said that she has supported Kerry for a long time. "Anyone who can raise those two daughters, I mean the proof is in the pudding!" said Clarkson, one of five sisters from New Orleans.

On a hunch, Salon asked Clarkson if she was a Teresa Heinz Kerry fan. She grabbed our arm, looked into our eyes, and said with both volume and intensity: "I want to be her."

Explaining the Teresa appeal, Clarkson said, "She's like Garbo. All these great iconoclastic women -- if you combined them all, you'd have Teresa. She is surprising and unorthodox, and she is going to be a great ambassador for our country, I love love love her." Clarkson said she wants to campaign, but that in New York there's nothing to do. "I guess I'll have to get on a bus," she said. Would she knock on doors in Pennsylvania? "Yeah! Sure! Why wouldn't I?" she asked, loudly.

Reno, the comedian who had kicked up the evening's dust, was seated at a table as the party began to drain. She said that she had raised her voice -- which is about as distinct as Clarkson's -- because she wanted to make sure that people knew about the march. "It is just as important to voice our disrespect for the Republican administration as it is to get out the vote," she said, noting that "at a cancer benefit, you write your check and then you think, 'good, now I don't have to think about cancer for the rest of the year.' This is a benefit where you need human energies to keep it going."

But mostly, she said happily, as friends motioned for her to walk out with them, "It is really so heartening to see the house afire -- that everyone is really giving a shit."

Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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