With her honeyed and smoky Texan vocal inflections, wearing a short-haired lustrous brown wig and costume designer Rhonda Key’s gleaming trim white suit, actress Lisa Hodsoll is phenomenal as former First Lady Laura Bush in author Ian Allen’s kaleidoscopic solo play, Laura Bush Killed a Guy.
For 95 mesmerizing minutes, Ms. Hodsoll gives a smashing performance that transcends mere impersonation or campy replication. Looking and sounding like Mrs. Bush, with her twinkling eyes and beaming presence, Hodsoll’s characterization is a dazzling amalgam of comedy, emotion and depth. An only child, she and her parents went on a mission:
I remember a powerful feeling of pleasure, a combination of joy and relief, as the big iron gates parted and I heard the wonderful sound of acorns popping under the tires as Daddy pulled up the winding driveway of the orphanage. Mother took my hand and we met with the staff, and they walked us through a labyrinthine series of halls, where we met and sat and talked with many of the children there, little boys and girls, who I liked and who seemed to like me.
Weaving well-researched biographical facts with detours into fantasy, Mr. Allen creates an enthralling portrait that is written with elegance, slyness and wit. Divided into three acts and structured as non-linear reminiscences and observations the play covers crucial events with theatrical flair.
Upon entering the contained theater that has two rows of seats on each of its three sides, the audience is greeted with a platter of cookies that are free to take.
Kim Deane’s simple yet striking set is a small round platform on which is a vintage wingchair. Adjacent is a black cloth-covered high table with a flower in a glass vase and a glass of water. A framed photograph of George W. Bush strategically hangs on the wall.
Hodsoll enters and addresses the audience directly as she does throughout. We learn that her recipe for Cowboy Cookies (chocolate, oats and nuts) was voted on twice by readers of Family Circle Magazine’s Presidential Cookie Contest as the best one, against opponents Tipper Gore and Teresa Heinz Kerry. She then recites the recipe.
We are now transported to a surreal universe by lighting designer David C. Ghatan and sound designer Lucas Zarwell’s dynamic contributions. The vignettes are punctuated by sharp blackouts, searing brightness and pulsing musical interludes. Stark titled projections herald the different acts and names of figures spoken of.
John Vreeke’s direction is highly aesthetic as he has Hodsoll meticulously placed, standing in multiple positions, at varying distances from the audience as well as periodically sitting. Mr. Vreeke’s unison of his rigorous physical staging, guidance of Hodsoll and employment of the technical elements results in a stimulating presentation on every level.
The production was first presented in the spring of 2018 in Washington, D.C by The Klunch, a theater company with a diverse membership that’s based there.
The play’s pivotal episode takes place on November 6, 1963. 17-year old Laura was driving with a girlfriend to see Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds in Midland, Texas. She ran a stop sign, striking another car and the driver was killed. He was her friend and high school classmate Michael Dutton Douglas. She and her friend received minor injuries and she was not criminally charged for the accident. While working as a school librarian, she met George W. Bush at mutual friends’ barbecue in July 1977 and they were married in November of that year.
When George began his 2000 bid for President, I decided to reread Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” as a kind of silly in-joke with myself. The feelings I felt on, along the campaign trail were pretty similar, I assumed, to what it must be like to watch your family brutally murdered in your living room.
Other major occurrences discussed are the weird circumstances of Election night 2000, a somber recounting of 9/11, and a defense of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. There are irreverent takes on important figures. Barbara Bush gets a scathing assessment as we learn that her diminutive Bar is actually taken from the name of a family horse. The “hungry” Hillary Clinton was a poor decorator of the White House and due to one of her hairstyles resembled Benjamin Franklin. “Poppy,” George Herbert Walker Bush comes off as benign. Her twins Jenna and Barbara get a loving but hard-edged treatment. “Dubya,” George Walker Bush, her husband is “so likeable” and is rendered as a reformed good The Petrold boy with a great deal of romantic affection.
Crestfallen upon learning that a recent “Which American First Lady do you most admire?” poll had her at 5%, behind Melania Trump’s 12%, “Really? Considering everything, don’t you wish we were back?”
Political views aside, Laura Bush Killed a Guy is a fascinating and provocative entertainment.
I’m a woman who wears pearls well. I’m a smoker. I’m a moderately sexy librarian. I’m a woman who says “I love you, Bushie” as she kisses her husband in the morning. I’m Mrs. George W. Bush. I’m the First Lady of the United States of America. I’m a cultural icon… I even managed to arrange for a trip to Afghanistan. I’ve been back twice since. You wouldn’t believe how heavy burkas are.
Laura Bush Killed a Guy (through July 8, 2018)
The Pete at The Flea Theater, 20 Thomas Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-226-0051 or visit http://www.theflea.org
Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission