As Gertrude Stein once said about Oakland, “There’s no THERE there.” And you might say the same for the Geffen Playhouse’s production of “Red Hot Patriot, The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins.”
Ivins, the rambunctiously liberal Texas journalist, was a latter-day Will Rogers, famous for deriding the pompous, the outrageous, and, above all, the shenanigans of the politically powerful. (She’s the one who dubbed George W. Bush “Shrub.”) Her sharp wit and shrewd punditry often got her fired, but by the end of her life her commentary was appearing regularly in some 400 newspapers around the country.
Ivins, who was actually born in Monterey, Calif., grew up in Houston, where her father was an oil and gas executive. A harsh and punishing man whom she called “the general” for his authoritarian ways, he engendered in her an angry, rebellious view of the world that fueled her caustic criticisms for the rest of her life. They were, she admitted, things she had wanted to say to her father.
For example, after Pat Buchanan’s inflammatory speech at the 1992 Republican Convention, in which he railed against Bill Clinton, liberals, abortion, gay rights, and other such “horrors,” she commented that Buchanan’s speech “probably sounded better in the original German.”
A graduate of Smith College with a master’s degree in Journalism from Columbia, she wrote consistently for the New York Times and The Washington Post in addition to her gigs at top Texas newspapers. At the Times, she said, “I was miserable at five times my previous salary!”
She never married because the two men she had loved had both been killed: the first in a motorcycle accident and the second in Vietnam, but she reveled in drinking and mixing it up with the men she worked with and considered it a compliment when they treated her like “one of the boys.”
In “a nation undeterred by reality” she claimed to be “an optimist to the point of idiocy” and defended her love of Texas as “a harmless perversion.”
All of this autobiographical material is rendered in a mushy Texas drawl by Kathleen Turner, and while it’s interesting, and occasionally funny, it all seems a bit hollow. Ms. Turner’s famously dark voice is hard to listen to for an uninterrupted 75 minutes, and in the end you leave with the sense that there was much more to Molly Ivins than was hinted at by Turner’s spare portrayal.
A mute “helper” (Matthew Van Oss) appears from time to time to rip bulletins out of the Associated Press wire machine and deliver coffee periodically, but he is not much of a diversion. Perhaps the playwrights, twin sisters Margaret and Allison Engel, and director David Esbjornson recognized that something more was needed in this one-woman show, but a non-speaking “helper” wasn’t it.
Just a couple of additional actors portraying some of the most significant people in Ivins’ life (like her good friend Ann Richards, the former governor of Texas) could have provided some lively interaction and a change of pace.
Further, designer John Arnone didn’t help with one of the dreariest sets ever assembled. It consisted of a few nondescript desks shoved to the back of the stage with an array of office chairs piled helter skelter and at odd angles on top. According to the playbill, this was supposed to represent “a newsroom past its prime.”
Just like the production itself.
“Red Hot Patriot, the Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins” will continue at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 LeConte Ave. in Westwood, Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. through Feb. 19. Call (310) 208-5454 for tickets or visit www.geffenplayhouse.com.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.