The title alone would lead you to expect a stiletto-sharp political satire; why else would a theater in Tribeca present a solo play about the wife of George W. Bush, routinely ranked as among the worst presidents in U.S. history? But “Laura Bush Killed A Guy” turns out to be something of a stealth enterprise, generating sympathy for a woman who is presented as more complex than the public perception of her. At its best, Ian Allen’s play challenged me to think about my own political perceptions.
At the outset, Lisa Hodsoll’s impersonation of Laura Bush suggests a caricature created for our amusement: Poised, carefully coiffed, always smiling, wearing a meticulous white suit and pearls, she thanks her hosts (The Flea’s artistic and producing directors) by name, and then launches into a detailed recipe for Laura Bush’s Cowboy Cookies. Those cookies, she explains, won the contest that Family Circle conducts every four years, asking the wives of the presidential candidates to submit their best cookie recipe.
(A batch of her Cowboy Cookies are offered on a table in the theater.)
Laura Bush then explains that her cookies are the first thing that come up when you Google her name, followed by “Laura Bush Killed A Guy.” She tells us the story behind that second result: When she was 17 years old, she says, she assassinated the boy she was dating by crashing her car into his, because her father and his were engaged in a legal dispute.
This account is of course wholly fanciful, and the first of three versions of the car crash she tells in the play. The third version comes closest to what the actual Laura Bush recounts in her 2010 memoir Spoken from the Heart: She ran a stop sign at a dangerous intersection, killing a classmate. “I regret many things about it,” the stage Laura Bush tells us in the play. “I probably shouldn’t have been driving to begin with. I’ve had bad eyes since I was a little girl.” Later, when George W. Bush proposes to her, she tells him she should know some things about her, and recounts the accident: “I told him about how it affected my life, ruined it really.” In response, he tells her about his arrest for drunken driving in Maine.
It’s one of several touching moments in a play that recounts incidents in her life out of chronological order, in a mixture of tones.
There is some politics in “Laura Bush Killed A Guy,” although little of it persuasive. It’s mostly framed as a wife’s defense of her husband. Laura defends the infamous moment her husband learned about the September 11th attacks, while reading a book to children entitled My Pet Goat: “George…had no intention of scaring the children, or to look flustered or un-presidential.”
It’s easy to suspect the playwright’s views are poking through in the following passage, which is the most extensive comment in the play that has anything to do with the Bush Administration track record:
“With George, there are many critics. They want to say he’s an idiot, blame him for everything, and point out his faults. Yes, he has some. Yes, he was the first president to enter the White House with a criminal record, for the DWI. Yes, he spent the budget surplus and left the biggest deficit in history. Yes, two million jobs were lost in the first year, and okay, a new record was set for private bankruptcies that year. And for the most foreclosures. And yes, we saw the highest gas prices and the worst drop in the stock market in the nation’s history. And, of course, 9-11. And Katrina.
“But people overlook the good we did. That George did. We liberated the people of Iraq and Afghanistan from terrible oppression. We made unprecedented progress on AIDS in Africa. Malaria rates in Zanzibar were cut to zero…”
More convincing are Laura’s sometimes poignant and pointed accounts of the toll that public life takes on any expectation of privacy — the phrase “Laura Bush Killed A Guy” was popularized in an episode of the animated series Family Guy – and on her day-to-day life as a politician’s wife. In talking about her quick courtship and marriage, she tells us: “I like to think it was a quick romance because we were both, well, I was 31 already. Old for Texas. But I know the truth. Karl Rove said he needed a wife. Don’t ask how I know. Okay, it’s because Karl told me in an angry moment. But I already knew it. Why else would Midland’s most eligible bachelor marry me, the old maid of Midland? I’m a lot of things, but I’m not a fool.”
She is certainly not in “Laura Bush Killed A Guy,” which prompts an intriguing question: Aren’t First Ladies caricatures created for the public? Their real-life playwrights and directors are political operatives like Karl Rove, enabled and enforced by the audience – the public.
What might be most interesting about “Laura Bush Killed A Guy,” which ends its run at The Flea this afternoon, is how much our perception of her and her husband have changed over the last 18 months or so.
At one point, the stage Laura Bush says: “If you could have us back, wouldn’t you?” – which got huge laughter and applause.
But the real Laura Bush has done an active part in changing perceptions, in an essay she wrote last month in the Washington Post, during the play’s run:
“I live in a border state. I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart.”
Laura Bush Killed a Guy
The Flea Theater
by Ian Allen.
Directed by John Vreeke. Performed by Lisa Hodsoll. Set design by Kim Deane. Lighting by David C. Ghatan. Costume design by Rhonda Key. Sound design by Lucas Zarwell
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.