The show opens with an empty stage and the unmistakable voice of George W. Bush over the loudspeakers: “A aspect of poverty is food.” Then a tall man with drooping shoulders and close-cropped dark hair lopes onto the stage. He’s wearing a nicely tailored brown suit and natty redwood-colored leather shoes. “A aspect of poverty is food,” the man says, slowly. “Please say it with me, everyone.” The audience obliges: “A aspect of poverty is food.”
The man looks at the audience. “Did he really say that? ‘ A aspect of poverty is food.’ He says things like this all the time-things that make me feel I am losing my mind.”
The man onstage is Mark Crispin Miller, a professor of media studies at New York University and the author of The Bush Dyslexicon: Observations on a National Disorder . Like many New Yorkers, the 53-year-old Mr. Miller has found himself uneasily adrift, while the rest of the country seems to be just wild about W. For someone who believes, as Mr. Miller does, that the 2000 election was fraudulent, that the Iraq war was a crime against humanity and that the current policies of the Justice Department are a death knell for American democracy, these are bleak, maddening times. To cope with his own bubbling rage and reach other despairing blue-staters, Mr. Miller is performing his one-man comedic play, Operation American Freedom , at the Cherry Lane Theater in the West Village to sold-out crowds every Saturday night through June. The show could be seen as a response to the lament that rings out from Unitarian pot-luck dinners, indie rock concerts and sociology departments across the land: that the Democratic Party has been struck dumb by the Bush administration’s audacity.
“Without a doubt, what is most troubling to me about this administration is the near-total and apparently systematic denunciation of the truth in matters large and small,” Mr. Miller said over lunch recently. “It is the mind-boggling mendacity of these people who tell you that black is white and white is black.”
The show is a largely improvised rant each week-more like a bitch session in your friend’s apartment than an evening at the theater, with topics ranging from W.’s reputed prowess at lighting his flatulence during parties at Yale to the Pentagon’s public-relations machine. Indeed, Operation American Freedom grew out of a bitch session between Mr. Miller’s wife, Amy Smiley, and her hairdresser, Antonio. When Ms. Smiley told Antonio that her husband was having difficulty finding public forums outside academia post-9/11, Antonio said that not only was he himself a radical Italian socialist, but he had contacts in the city’s arts scene. Prego ! He was able to get the alienated academic into the Cherry Lane Theater, and he and Mr. Miller plan to take the show to a larger venue this fall.
Mr. Miller is encrusted with a thicker level of learning than political comedians like Michael Moore or Bill Maher. He studied literary criticism at Johns Hopkins in the 1970’s and wrote his doctoral thesis about courtliness in the Renaissance. He subjects Mr. Bush’s malapropisms to the same textual scrutiny he once applied to Henry VIII .
“There was a moment during the second debate with Al Gore,” Mr. Miller said, “when they were talking about a hate-crimes bill in Texas. Bush launched into this thing about the murderers of James Byrd and how the state was going to fry them. There was a look of glee on his face. He spoke with ease and conviction, completely unscripted. That was a revelation to me. I realized that he is capable of speaking cruelly.”
His take on the G.O.P.: “They are pathologically concerned with purifying themselves, and they project the hatred they have for themselves onto others.”
One point Mr. Miller makes repeatedly during his show is that George Bush is not stupid. “He is proud of his ignorance, proud that his mind is shut tight like an oyster, but he’s not stupid,” Mr. Miller tells his audience.
“If Bush were just a laughingstock, just a boob who happened to be dumped on the throne by the forces of evil and bore no other relation to them, it would be cruel to do what I do,” Mr. Miller said. “I’d be mocking the afflicted. But it’s not cruel because he has much in common with the people around him, and the movement he represents is pure vindictiveness. They want to win, and they want the loser to suffer.”
To prepare his book and his show, Mr. Miller has probably ingested more words of George W. Bush than any other American. “It’s not easy to be immersed in this stuff,” he said. “But I have this compulsion to set the record straight. I can’t stand the constant lying. I believe we are obliged to speak out, if for no other reason than it’s easy to imagine a future where people will berate themselves for having gone about business as usual.”
He’d rather have them berate themselves now. Or better yet, berate others. At the start of his show one night, he told the audience, “I hope you want to leave here tonight and pick a fight, not crawl home and cry.”
-Elizabeth Cady Brown
Was It Good for You?
Broadway musical veteran and two-time Tony nominee Rebecca Luker is pretty and blond and nice, and it’s starting to become a big fucking problem.
The winsome actress-slash-singer insists she has an inner bitch that’s aching to get out. It’s just that anything but bonny, blue-eyed goodness is hard for the bonny blue-eyed Ms. Luker to sell. For over a decade, Ms. Luker, 42, has been the Great White Way’s cherry-lipped reincarnation of Shirley Jones and Julie Andrews-the perennial bloomers-clad lass who Sally Bowles and Velma Kelly could rip apart with a stiletto. In The Music Man revival, she was chaste Marian the Librarian; in Show Boat, she played the ingénue Magnolia; and in The Sound of Music , she went out on a limb and sang the part of everyone’s favorite lapsed nun with such gusto that one could forget anyone else had ever played the part. She tried to tart things up a bit last year when she took her first non-musical role, in The Vagina Monologues . “I did the one that had all the moans. What a hoot!” she said. “I had a ball …. The producer called and said, ‘Which part do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘I want to do anything except the part of the woman who does the moans,’ and he said, ‘Well, in that case, that’s the one you’re going to do!’ And it was just horrifying to think that I’d have to do 14 different orgasm sounds onstage! He said, ‘You need to do it-it’ll be good for you.’ So I worked on it, and it ended up being my favorite part of the show, honest to God.”
But with her Doris Day blond verve and her voice-a light soprano that sweeps you in and makes being a good girl seem pretty damn great-Ms. Luker will have to do a lot more than moan to scrub off the glow of everyone’s Puritan darling.
“I’m so not Maria von Trapp …. I’m just me. I’m a nice person, and I think I exude that, but we all have so many sides to us. We all have that dark side,” Ms. Luker said one recent afternoon, sipping weak black coffee near the Morningside Heights apartment she shares with her husband, actor Danny Burstein (who’s playing Edina’s son’s boyfriend in next season’s Absolutely Fabulous ), and her two young stepsons. She was wearing a tan linen blazer, her golden hair was in a bun at the nape of her neck, and her short fingernails were clean and polished in clear. She looked like the world’s prettiest librarian. Asked her current favorite pastimes, Ms. Luker said they included knitting, watching The Golden Girls and doing laundry.
“I’m just a normal person with my own past. We’ve all made mistakes,” she said, launching into a sweet tale of growing up in Alabama, singing into a hairbrush in front of the mirror. She’s currently performing in a low-budget romantic comedy, Can’t Let Go by Keith Reddin, at the Connelly Theatre, which is located in a Catholic school on East Fourth Street. The play takes place inside a gray, nondescript office. Ms. Luker plays Beth, a blazer-sporting cubicle cog. The play is dotted with musical interludes, in which characters flamboyantly lip-sync songs that help them express their emotions. Ms. Luker mouths the words to a Connie Francis ditty and does a step-and-kick routine. Beth’s life mirrors Ms. Luker’s in one key way: The spry paper-pusher is plagued by the problem of being universally adored. One after another, her macho boss, a dorky accounting clerk and a pouty lesbian coworker announce their pent-up love for her. Beth spends the next hour staving off their affections and trying to win back the favor of a boyfriend who has decided he wants to become a woman.
“I think Beth is very uncomfortable with all the attention she gets, and I think I’m like that too,” Ms. Luker said. “I’m not always happy being the center of attention. And I have no idea what makes her so lovable. She’s no supermodel, she’s not gross, but she’s just normal. She just wants to get her job done. She’s kind of a loner, kind of a sad person in her own way, but she’s a strong person too. She’s sort of a doormat, and yet-she’s not.”
Ms. Luker said there was another similarity between herself and her character: a passion for cussing.
“During rehearsal, I warned Carl [Forsman, the play’s director] that I have a real sailor-mouth, and he said, ‘No, if you did, you wouldn’t say you did,'” Ms. Luker said. “But I probably say ‘shit’ a lot. I mean, not a lot, but enough. I say it when I need to: shit. And I say ‘damn,’ too.”
Beth’s guns are a little bigger. “Motherfucker!” she yells while storming offstage in Act I.
“It’s so much fun to say!” said Ms. Luker, who added that the cursing has kept her from letting her stepsons see the show. “But I’m still working on it, still trying to make it feel right. I haven’t really captured the physicality for it yet. You know, my career has been made up of sunshiny, flowery nice characters, and I was just so ready to say ‘Motherfucker!'”
-Anna Jane Grossman
New Yorker Cliffs Notes
You probably know who Jonathan Franzen is. He wrote the big best-seller The Corrections in 2001, a book which lots of your friends read and liked very much. Maybe you even read it yourself and liked it very much-and so you might find yourself tempted to read his essay about his high-school high jinks in the current issue of The New Yorker . The thing is, it’s long. Really long. Note that the editors of The New Yorker are a brave bunch-they splayed Mr. Franzen’s essay out over 13 pages, trusting that readers wouldn’t give up or be distracted by the nice ad for the Mini Cooper-you can punch out along the perforated lines and build your own really mini Mini Cooper! (page 108) -or find themselves reading about the virtues of earning an M.B.A. from Yale (advertisement, page 117) instead of about Mr. Franzen hiding from the police “in a clump of rhododendrons.”
So, to save you some time, here’s all you need to know about the Franzen essay. The comments below should stand up just fine for purposes of literary cocktail-party chatter, or even if you suddenly find yourself mushed up against The Author himself on the No. 6 train and you want to brighten his day by telling him how much you enjoyed his essay in The New Yorker :
The story takes place in St. Louis in 1976. Mr. Franzen and his high-school friends want to slip a car tire over the school flagpole. They do not succeed. While standing on the roof of the school, he smells “the great sorrowful world-smell of being alive beneath a sky.” His father was good at building things. He was not and “hated being young.” Dumped by first girlfriend, identified as “M-.” When he was alone in the house, he played his own records (Grateful Dead and Moody Blues). His mother says, “Turn that off! That awful rock music! I can’t stand it!” He finds social acceptance when he starts wearing Levi’s straight-leg corduroys. He likes snow because of its “transformative enchantment of ordinary surfaces.” He and his pals steal clappers from all the school bells; hence, no morning bell. He falls for girl named Siebert; she falls from tower, breaks back, but gets better. He concludes that “[A]dolescence is best enjoyed without self-consciousness, but self-consciousness, unfortunately, is its leading symptom.” Goes to college. During summer break, he dresses up like blind person at behest of prankster friends. He feels guilty. The essay ends with Mr. Franzen going for a drive with his parents.