Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins

by Trevor Thomas

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday January 17, 2012

Kathleen Turner standing before one of Molly Ivin’s favorite targets.
Kathleen Turner standing before one of Molly Ivin’s favorite targets.  (Source: Mark Garvin)

Selling liberalism to an L.A. audience is about as tough as getting your dog to eat scraps from the table. So why only a perfunctory hootin' and a-hollerin' when Kathleen Turner in the title role of "Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins," now onstage at the Geffen, starts laying out her favorite targets and revs up for a thinly disguised 4th quarter pep rally for the Occupy movement?

Maybe it's because the real Molly Ivins playwrights Margaret and Allison Engel are dealing with defies such easy manipulation. Maybe because someone who gleefully described Americans as so dumb that 77% of them believe Alexis de Tocqueville should never have divorced Blake Carrington, sounds ridiculous mouthing sentimental platitudes about "the people." That seems like exactly the kind of treacle Molly Ivins used to grind her cigarettes out in.

As a proud and unabashed liberal she might well have been a champion of the new left politics. Who knows? But all you have to do is take in her wry, caustic wit to realize imitation of something so singular is a daunting task. It's terribly difficult to pepper an evening with the actual quotes of someone as inimitable as Molly Ivins and to then attempt recreating that voice as you imagine she might articulate things she never said. Unless you're as gifted a literary impressionist as Tom Stoppard, you probably shouldn't try.

In terms of story, the Engel twins deliver Ivins' words from inside a quotidian biographical frame. It's hardly a play, and though they mine her battle with cancer to create drama, even there Ivins defeats them. How do you manufacture pathos for a character who steadfastly refused to be pathetic? ("Cancer may kill you but it doesn't make you a better person.")

Beyond the weak dramatic structure, the playwrights' compositional technique in setting up and then delivering Ivin's glorious zingers proves their undoing. Surely there is no more fitting instrument to play the Ivins' tunes upon that Kathleen Turner's magnificent charred oak voice, here smoothed out and played sul tasto by the languorous vowels and elided consonants of the Texas patois. But the music is decidedly off.

Three words, pause, three words, pause -- Turner's reading falls into an ostinato rut that would give Philip Glass migraines. The script is woefully careless with phrasing and tempo and director David Esbjornson must bear some of the blame for the dull rhythms that ensue. Having the supernumerary Matthew Van Oss gravely push the dead Miss Ivins desk to the rear of the stage as a funerary gesture is not so exerting an invention that he can be forgiven for allowing Turner to deliver her lines with the mechanical monotony of a Suzuki student practicing her scales.

Though the laughs are plentiful and though it is great fun watching Turner prowl about the stage like a caged panther testing its bars, the collected creative forces behind "Red Hot Patriot" have failed to bring their subject much to life.

Perhaps we don't react that lustily because in the end she seems as reduced in circumstance as when she was stuck writing obits for the New York Times. We're a little reluctant to stand up and cheer as we're not sure we're seeing Miss Ivins on her best day, and as it is when visiting an under-the-weather friend, loud noises just seem out of place.

Performances at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Westwood through February 12. For tickets and information, visit www.geffenplayhouse.org.