Theater archives

Finley Toons Up


If some enterprising website would immediately post a downloadable version of Karen Finley’s script for George and Martha, I imagine she would get about a thousand productions between now and Election Day. And that would be wonderful, not because George and Martha is such an immortal work—it ranks, waveringly, around medium in the Finley canon—but because to experience its outrage, and its outrageousness, supplies a gratification not to be had in any other form. The satisfaction is especially tangible in the low-ceilinged basement of Collective Unconscious’s new space, where the performance, by Finley and Neal Medlyn, has the shrieky, giddy spirit of living-room charades at a particularly raucous good-time party. The minute they enter the space—Finley in convict stripes, fake pearl necklace, and silver lamé boots, Medlyn in flag stripes, cowboy boots, and no pants—a specific and decidedly uncommon kind of cheerful lunacy is in the air.

For such a feeling to invade our political (never mind our theatrical) life is a shocking joy. The last time I remember experiencing it was in ’67 when Stacy Keach and Rue McClanahan played MacBird in the larger but similarly cozy Village Gate. Nobody would pretend that Finley and Medlyn have the graceful professionalism, let alone the skill at mimicry, of Keach and McClanahan; they compensate by their willingness to play along so amicably with the freewheeling lewdness of Finley’s script, which purports to record a weekend hotel assignation, supposedly one of many, between Martha Stewart and George Bush, which starts lovey-dovey but quickly churns into an acrimonious replay-cum-update of Albee’s George and Martha. (“I bet you’ve never even heard of Edward Albee,” Martha sighs at one point, to which George drawlingly replies, “Wasn’t he on Green Acres?”)

Finley’s gift for veering verbally from sexual bluntness to devastating instant analysis, at full boomerang power here, delivers some telling satiric stings, but political satire isn’t precisely the point. This is more like three-dimensional political cartooning, practiced with the same coarse fierceness that animated great 18th-century British caricaturists like Rowlandson and Gillray, or drove Max Beerbohm to his epic takedowns of Britannia during the Boer War. We may live in a time when smears and sordid allegations have replaced issues in political discourse; our spin doctors may have learned how to centrifuge every scandal into slickly streamlined negative imagery, but that’s just the traditional accusatory bickering of politics brought up to date. Finley’s purpose lies elsewhere: We know that George Bush, the rich moron who’s coasted through his disastrous life on daddy’s money and influence, is despised and distrusted even by most of the self-destructive fools who are willing to vote for him; what Finley does is to give them, and us, a joyous outlet for our hatred. Nixon, during Watergate, seemed far more comprehensible after the memorable cartoon in which Jules Feiffer drew him as King Kong, shredding the Constitution and stomping the Capitol dome flat; similarly, the sight of Medlyn’s George, crouched on all fours while Finley’s Martha inspects his anus with a flashlight because he’s convinced that Osama bin Laden has crawled up it, is one for the books, or for the Museum of Political Cartooning, if such a thing exists.

Notice that there isn’t any “literal” content to it: We know that George Bush doesn’t actually believe that bin Laden resides in his asshole, any more than Nixon’s foot was large enough to squash the Capitol dome. But these are the liberties cartoonists take in exaggerating and foreshortening. Notice, too, that even in debasing Bush, Finley’s image extends him a degree of compassionate understanding. The more probable truth—that George Bush sees bin Laden as nothing but a handy excuse for himself and his cronies to abuse power and steal public money—would undoubtedly be too cynical for her. In Finley’s reading, Bush’s chronic fuckups come from the self-destructive drives of an unwanted child with a death wish; the White House job oppresses him as much as he oppresses us. It’s no wonder that he simultaneously resents and can’t resist the spell of Martha Stewart, who represents for Finley the overcompensating child of shabby gentility turned into a dominatrix tastemaker of consumer capitalism. He calls her “Mommy,” identifying her with the emotionally distant parent he can never gratify; she, in turn, identifies him with the inherited arrogance of the ruling class that she, an arriviste, can never wholly belong to. What’s astonishing is the way Finley, in both writing and performance, tosses off the event casually, as if slinging hash; the intellectual rigor emerges as a tasty surprise from something that has been made to seem superficially both rambling and repetitive.

The device, not unusual with Finley, is a way of lowering expectations, the better to knock you out with the substantiveness of the results. This ploy has its limitations: In the effort to be easy about it all, Finley works her familiar tricks, including a few of her more irritating vocal patterns, a touch too hard; Medlyn, a less assured performer and not always at ease in the situation, often loses focus, dropping the energy as well as his pants. And while it’s fascinating to watch the ideas scurry across the sleaze of the text, like silverfish on a grungy motel carpet, the grossness of what’s being said and mimed explicitly may keep more fastidious audience members from relishing both the joy and the intelligence packed into Finley’s cunningly calculated outrage. Some people may think she’s just plain nasty; I think she’s a theatrical Thomas Nast.

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