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Theater review: 'Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins' at Geffen Playhouse

January 12, 2012 |  3:30 pm

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What a delight to encounter once again the wit and wisdom of the late newspaper columnist Molly Ivins, who never met a politician she couldn’t skewer with her salty satire.

A liberal voice from conservative Texas, Ivins made it her mission to introduce her readers to the clowns and corkers they had elected to represent them. She wasn’t in the entertainment business, but given the cast of characters she had to work with and her 20/20 journalistic vision, she had a claim to being the funniest woman in the Lone Star State.

Kathleen Turner, who portrays Ivins in “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins,” which opened Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse, can’t quite duplicate the light East Texas drawl. (Turner’s signature husky tone sounds as though she’s been treating a sore throat by gargling with bourbon.) But the veteran actress has that same “Do you really want to reckon with me, cowboy?” bravado that makes this straightforward tribute to Ivins (it really can’t be considered a play) diverting despite its pedestrian nature. 

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And when Turner’s performance digs a little deeper into the loneliness that comes with being a chronic truth-teller, the show manages to be mildly touching, even momentarily revealing — one battle-hardened broad exposing the scars of another.

Written by Margaret Engel and Allison Engel, twin sisters with journalism résumés, “Red Hot Patriot” compiles remarks and rejoinders made by Ivins (a good portion of which are easily found on YouTube) while providing an overview of her life story. The script is efficient if somewhat slapdash in its biographical summary, which unfolds in a forgotten newsroom with an Associated Press Teletype machine that conveniently spits out Ivins’ old newspaper articles. These are carried in by a copy boy (Matthew Van Oss) whose presence is so unnecessary that I wondered whether he was Turner’s personal assistant getting a kickback for traveling with her.

“Uncle Vanya” this isn’t. But if you can get past some of the hokier dramatic touches, it’s an opportunity to spend some time in Ivins’ lively company. We hear about her privileged though far from blissful childhood country-clubbing with the families of oil executives, whom she naturally distrusted and couldn’t wait to get away from. A gawky redhead with freckles, she was described by her mother as “a St. Bernard among greyhounds.” Her formidable father, known as “The General,” turned cocktail hour debates over world affairs into harrowing screaming matches that had the sole advantage of toughening her up for the professional fights that lay ahead.

After Smith College, she made the rounds of newspapers before landing a position at the Texas Observer, where she and fellow editor Kaye Northcott “traveled the state on a kinda progressive underground railroad.” From there, she was recruited to add some color to the New York Times’ gray flannel prose, succeeding for a time (she was the given the assignment of writing Elvis Presley’s obituary) before being called on the carpet for referring to a chicken slaughter festival in New Mexico as a “gang pluck.”

A troublemaker by disposition, Ivins was also an unapologetic antiwar liberal who had lost a boyfriend in the Vietnam War, which she says gave her “life-long issues with rage.” Her drinking was a problem and intimacy was fraught with challenges. It’s hard to compete with the memory of a first love from college killed in a motorcycle accident or let your guard down among men after fending off an overbearing father. But she kept using her anger for democratic good, letting the world in on even her furious battle with breast cancer, which ended her life in 2007 at the all too young age of 62.

Turner, who moseys about the stage of director David Esbjornson’s straightforward production in a denim shirt and red boots, has filled out over the years, making her, if not exactly a look-alike, a plausible stand-in. What’s most memorable about her performance is the way she embodies the core of Ivins’ feistiness. There’s nothing abstract here. Public passions and personal history link up and fuel one another.

So when Ivins makes a crack about a politician who’s going to have to be watered twice a day if his IQ drops any further, what we get is not just a journalist as stand-up comic but a woman — a survivor — who has learned from her earliest days how to level a bully with a single quip.

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More theater reviews the Los Angeles Times

--Charles McNulty

twitter.com\charlesmcnulty

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

"Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins," Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, L.A. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays.  $72 - $87. (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.com  Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Photos: Upper and Lower: Kathleen Turner stars as Molly Ivins in the "Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins" at Geffen Playhouse. Photo from Philadelphia Theatre Company production. Credit: Mark Garvin

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