Did You Hear? Laura Bush Killed a Guy
The furtive former first lady sits down at the Flea Theater to discuss a haunting episode from her past.
Amid disturbing reports about the kidnap and imprisonment of migrant children at our border, Laura Bush penned an opinion piece comparing Donald Trump's "zero-tolerance policy" to Japanese interment during World War II. The article is simultaneously passionate and reasonable, a perfect addition to the rehabilitation of the Bushes that seems to be taking place a decade after the end of George W.'s disastrous presidency. "And really, if you could have us back…Wouldn't you?" asks Laura Bush (Lisa Hodsoll) in Ian Allen's Laura Bush Killed a Guy. The majority of the off-off-Broadway audience applauds, the first decade of this century safely in the rearview mirror.
But do we really know Laura Bush enough to want her back? She maintained a cheerfully apolitical profile during her husband's two terms in the White House. Allen's solo play (a production of the Klunch at the Flea Theater) seems to give us an opportunity to know her better. Disappointingly, we leave feeling like we've just ingested more fake news.
The title says it all: Laura Bush was indeed involved in a 1963 car accident that resulted in the death of one of her friends, Mike Douglas. She was 17 at the time and a very inexperienced driver by her own admission. The Midland, Texas, police concluded it was an accident and no charges were ever brought. Bush has been naturally reluctant to speak about the incident, fueling lingering conspiracy theories. Was she drunk? Was Mike her boyfriend? Was there bad blood? This unsubstantiated chatter is rekindled annually due to a spike in Google searches prompted by a Family Guy Halloween episode that reminds its viewers: Laura Bush killed a guy.
The play is organized into three acts, with the beginning of each imagining a different scenario of how things went down, somewhat like the movie Clue. Each scenario is followed by Laura's recollections of her life with the Bush clan and her husband's presidency, from the contentious election to 9/11 to the Iraq War to Hurricane Katrina. Throughout, Bush never shies away from admitting that she did indeed kill Mike by plowing through a stop sign, but she would prefer to talk about her recipe for Cowboy Cookies. It's like the darkest book talk ever.
Although she looks more like a young Cokie Roberts than Laura Bush, Hodsoll eerily conjures the political wife poise and Southern sweetness of the first lady we never really knew. She sits on a floral antique chair with her knees inseparably locked, charming us with stories about her husband's party-animal days and her formidable mother-in-law. Still, she remains unflappably guarded, sporting a hard exoskeleton undoubtedly developed by exposure to a family of Maine WASPs who jab a little too hard with their mocking nicknames.
Costume designer Rhonda Key visualizes that armor with a white skirt suit, sensible heels, and a string of pearls. That's topped off by an unfortunate helmet of a wig. Kim Deane's set is minimal and easily transportable, with the aforementioned chair, a round platform, a framed photo of George W. Bush, and a table of flowers and tissues. Each scene is separated by a blackout with a projected chapter title, perfect for this self-described "moderately sexy librarian." Lucas Zarwell's aggressive transition music suggests a murder mystery. It all runs smoothly, if a bit dully, under the direction of John Vreeke.
By presenting three alternative versions of Laura Bush's crash, Allen seems to want to say something about the blurry line between fact and fiction, and how lies twist and multiply in the kaleidoscope of the Internet. Unfortunately, it never expresses a particularly clear perspective on that phenomenon. Nor does it reckon with the privilege it requires to walk away from a fatal car crash with no charges in the punishment-happy state of Texas.
Most damningly, this comedy is just not that funny. Laura Bush Killed a Guy presents an evening with Laura Bush, a woman who seems nice, but is still intangible by the end. "I'm just not really all that memorable," she laments near the end of the play. After 80 minutes with this artistic rendering, we perfectly agree.