Surely The Village Voice could have found someone slightly—well, gayer to review Karen Finley’s bizarro melding of Liza Minnelli tribute and 9-11 threnody, but perhaps the point is that we’re all in this orange-alert craziness together, even those of us whose lifelong aversion to La Liz developed sometime in the first hour of Arthur 2: Love on the Rocks. Though the stage at Fez comes packed with no fewer than nine Liza impersonators, representing her supposed split personalities, most of them sit out the proceedings, with the exception of a writhing porn-shoot group hump and a sortie into the audience to deliver kisses as the piano vamps “Is That All There Is?”
The answer: not by a long shot. Our main Liza (Finley), abetted musically by Lizas No. 1 (Lance Cruce) and No. 2 (Chris Tanner), provides a deliriously unhinged running commentary on her travels and tribulations in post-9-11 America, fizzing with non sequiturs and a full-blown narcissist’s glossary of couchspeak, torn apart every couple seconds by fusillades of maniacal laughter. Various musical chestnuts, not necessarily Liza-related, punctuate the evening, serving as free-associative dipsticks as she distends lyrics, interjects haunting phrases, or launches into high-octane rants that can slip easily from funny to frightening. (They also serve as opportunities for “Fosse hands.”) To—or rather against—the tune of “My Favorite Things,” Finley conjures a Liza stranded in a hinterland hotel, venting against the undersophisticated, a prisoner of her own monstrous privilege: “USA Today is not a paper! No, I don’t wear sweatpants! What do you mean I can’t get a drink after two? This is relaxed! No, this is not aggressive! You live here? You live here? You call this a town?”
What lends Make Love its complexity is the way Finley wraps her stream-of-Liza-consciousness around the more nerve-wracking elements of post-9-11 life, meditating on how inscrutable security alerts have turned the country into a “national s&m torture chamber.” Noting how she still brings one bottle of red and one bottle of white to a party (in this case, wines by Coppola, “to stay in the film industry—you never know, Cabaret 2 . . . World War I, World War II . . . “), she sets the two wine bags atop the piano. As a spotlight hits, their shadows double for the twin towers. There’s something initially offensive about this seemingly flip evocation, but ultimately it seems like a true picture of how ineradicable the memory remains, snapping into focus when we least expect it.
Occasionally there seems to be too much going on, too many levels of artifice around a wound still far too raw—as if Finley needs to translate an observation through a Liza filter. At other times the filter disappears altogether, as Finley channels a different, preacherlike persona. Sometimes the slippage between the Minnelli mask and what we imagine is the Finley face sparks its own set of weird incongruities, such as when a Wall Street Journal editor calls her (having read her article, “Straight Girl’s Guide to Gay Men’s Porn” in “The Village B—Voice. I was going to say ‘Village Boys’ . . . I love Village boys . . . “) and asks her to comment on why the attack on the WTC was “better art-directed” than the one on the Pentagon. “I said, ‘Really, you should talk to Eric Bogosian—he had a better view than me. He was higher up.’ ”
But for all Finley’s mercurial intelligence and energy, the interaction between self-absorbed celebrity survivor and national tragedy can feel forced and arbitrary. Invoking September 11 may be heartfelt, but that doesn’t mean artists should get a free pass; one can come to believe, after an hour and change, that Liza and 9-11 are a perfect fit, but it’s conceivable that resonances could be found in any personality so featured. (Lucille Ball? Herodotus? Emily Dickinson?) See Make Love in this time of war first for Finley’s marathon mimicry, and next for the handful of quieter moments when the questions surrounding that day surge into view: “How close were you? How did the story end? Who did you know?”
Those looking for a refreshing spot of theater for young people should seek out The Summer of the Swans, an adaptation of Betsy Byars’s young adult novel. Playing pickle-in-the-middle Sara, Kate Wetherhead gives a nuanced performance as a girl drifting into a season of growing pains and bafflements. Sara’s confused by the changing priorities of her popular if flighty high-school-age sister (Bethany Butler), her masked-over affection for her next-door neighbor (Dustin Sullivan), and a newfound ambivalence about having to constantly care for her retarded brother (John Lloyd Young, evocatively wordless).
James Wolk’s minimal set design is bright and effective, with backdrop panels featuring vintage Seventeen magazine covers and ads for deluxe living rooms, playfully representing the “normalcy” that Sara thinks she craves. Though adults may find the life lessons here a trifle transparent, the spirited Wetherhead evokes an awkward age with touching precision.