“Post Mortem” jokes about life in post-Bush America

Funny one-liners adorn thin plot about mounting of subversive play

By Lucy Komisar

There‘s a new genre of plays that has appeared in the past few years. A combination of political theater and theater of the absurd, they are, for want of a better term, the Bush-Cheney plays. Among them currently are “Bush is Bad,” a musical parody, and “The Dick Cheney Holiday Spectacular,” a revue by the inimitable “Billionaires for Bush.” Add to that A.R. Gurney‘s shaggy dog comedy, “Post Mortem.”

Gurney has written several political satires. I especially liked “The Fourth Wall,” a witty parody in which a suburban housewife is so exercised by the Bush administration (stealing the election, canceling international treaties, plotting war) that she has moved the furniture of her soignée living room to face the fourth wall, the audience. She seeks to persuade everybody, “including poor people and ethnic minorities,” that in spite of American unilateralism – and American capitalism — people have to think beyond embellishing their own lives.

“The Fourth Wall” had a clever plot. “Post Mortem” likewise has quite a few good one-liners, but the work itself is so thin, that there‘s very little on which to hang those “bons mots.”

In a nation run by the Christian Right, censors have replaced theater critics, hidden microphones pick up subversive ideas, and the playwright A.R. Gurney has years before died a suspicious death – probably murdered – because of his writing. A Gurney manuscript is discovered by Dexter (Christopher Kromer), a college student, and he persuades his drama teacher, Alice Tucker (Tina Benko), who he is trying to seduce, to stage it. But when Dexter tries to photocopy the script, an employee of their Midwestern “faith-based” university shreds it. Dexter and Alice reconstruct the work, perform it and become world famous.

The gags and one-liners are the best part of the play. During the dark days, Dexter warns Alice, “Don‘t google Gurney. It‘s too dangerous.” She gives her Chekhov class instructions to write an essay on evangelical comedy. Buffalo, on the Canadian border, has become a trading post specializing in drugs coming in and refugees going out. The government, in financial difficulty because of the Iraq war, has ordered all Broadway theaters to convert to gambling casinos. Student drama organizations are allowed to produce scenes from the Bible and the Bush and Cheney families.

Somehow, the reconstructed miraculous play ends the rule of the Bush legacy, and also brings about universal health care and good public transportation. Americans are welcomed and celebrated everywhere they go. Theater can be that powerful! However, the new era still is plagued by cell phones, the topic of a too long riff by Betsy (Shannon Burkett), a student running a lecture program that has invited Dexter and Alice to speak.

Director Jim Simpson does best at setting the mood for joke punch lines, which are thrown off nonchalantly. Unfortunately, when the jokes stop, the show has serious flaws. Dexter‘s infatuation for Alice is a silly, overdone sit-com device. And, the second part of the play is labored. Gurney contradicts the mood he has set by turning serious and preachy.

In the cast, the two women are especially good. Benko, her hair in a blonde chignon and an expert at comic angular body movements, exudes sophistication as Alice. Burkett is cute as the wide-eyed, pony-tailed ingénue who reminds one of a grinning cheerleader.

“Post Mortem,” by A.R. Gurney. Directed by Jim Simpson. Starring Tina Benko, Shannon Burkett, Christopher Kromer.

The Flea Theater. 41 White St. (bet Broadway & Church – IND and IRT subways at Canal St., IRT at Franklin St.). Wed-Fri 7pm; Sat 3pm & 7pm. Running time: 80 min. Through Dec. 16. $18-$45. 212-352-3101. http://www.theflea.org/.

Photos by Joan Marcus.

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