‘Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins’
By Margaret Engel and Allison Engel
Starring Kathleen Turner
Directed by David Esbjornson
Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles
Through Feb. 12, 2012
You have got to love someone who says she named her dog “Shit” so she “could go out back and scream shit.” Why didn’t I think of that? Then again, it sounds like Molly Ivins, not like most of the rest of us. Feminist columnist Molly Ivins could skewer anyone, including her own self, with her keen talent of observation and no nonsense one-liners. Who said the women’s movement has no sense of humor? Certainly not someone who read any of her columns or heard an interview. It is said that her barbs were so skillful that politicians of every stripe just wanted to see themselves in her writings. Her former high school classmate, George W. Bush prompted her to say, “Can you believe God gave me all this material for free?” Bush gave a very gracious memorial statement after her death.
Ivins died of breast cancer in 2007. She is someone who should not be forgotten. But does “Red Hot Patriot” at the Geffen do the best job of capturing her essence? At this time, Kathleen Turner does bear more than a passing physical resemblance to Ivins’ imposing figure. If you have never heard Ivins speak you might think that Turners’ put-on, heavy Texas accent, and gruff delivery, are just right for a woman who said, “Alcohol may lead nowhere, but it sure is the scenic route.” Therein lies the rub. Because both women are imposing figures and have a shared history of alcohol abuse it does not mean that one can just slip into the shoes of the other. For all her forthright, and sometimes below the belt, bravado, Ivins spoke in a firm, but somehow gentle, Southern voice. Kathleen Turner, however, is still gravelly-throated Kathleen Turner who flubbed a few lines early on in the performance. Ivins’ notorious drinking actually facilitated her work. She could good-old-boy and knock back a few with the best of them until politicians would eagerly spill the beans, providing her with more grist for the mill.
The Engels’ script is essentially a series of pithy quotes from Ivins herself, loosely stitched onto a fable of her in a messy newsroom, close to death herself, trying to squeeze out a column about her father, with whom she had had a love/hate relationship. It is periodically punctuated by a Teletype spitting out the AP wire news. Triumph of feminism you say: whenever the bell dings, a young man rips the paper off the wire and finally brings her a cup of coffee (for this the Geffen needed an understudy?).
Let’s call “Red Hot Patriot” what it is: a one-woman homage to a terrific wit and a wise woman. It is not a play. Putting a star name on the marquee does not turn it into a drama. From the uninspired set — piled up, old, metal office furniture against a scrim which allows for the projection of several photographs — to the lackluster direction of David Esbjornson, “Red Hot Patriot” does not match the pleasure of curling up with one of Ivins’ books and savoring every word. As a matter of fact, for the price of a ticket you could buy two of her books, share them with a friend, and the two of you could knock back a few yourselves.