Henry Kissinger: A Romantic Comedy
nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
August 12, 2006
John Attanas has written a charming coming-of-age play in Henry Kissinger: A Romantic Comedy. It is both familiar and surprising, with one of the most endearing qualities being that Attanas loves his characters, and it is impossible not to love them back. His fine use of symmetry and repetition give this play warmth and old-fashioned humor.
The play takes place in the 1960s, '70s, and today as the character A. J. Muldoon grows up. It opens with A. J. watching That Girl on TV when his mother, Katherine, enters and switches the channel to the news. Katherine, a single mom, is also single-minded. Confident of her Republican views and dead certain that the Middle East conflict will be solved by the very smart, Harvard-educated Henry Kissinger, she attributes Nixon's trip to China—a brilliant move—to Kissinger, and is relieved when, the following year, he is appointed Secretary of State. She shares all this with A. J. He is 4.
Not much changes when A. J. turns 6, then 11, 13, and 16. His mother provides daily readings on the accomplishments of Henry Kissinger, and it is not long before Katherine's ambitions for her son include Harvard and a Cabinet post. It is her mission to put him through school. All the while, A. J., a smart but lackadaisical boy, suffers from two demons: poor math scores and a weakness for Jewish women. The first is satisfied by a series of female tutors, which feeds the second since he falls in love with all of them. The relationship between mother and son is a traditional one. She is in charge and he accepts that, for the most part. His rebellion is modest by today's standards, but it is enough to give A. J. dimension. A lovely shift occurs midway through the play when a new boss appears at Katherine's job, requiring her to work very late. Suddenly, it is A. J. who makes their dinner.
Martin D. Anderson delivers a mother's dream of a son in his portrayal of A. J. It's not that he's perfect or that he'll ever take the world by storm. Anderson's A. J. is simply lovable. He crosses from narrator to character and back in a casual, seamless way that makes this play accessible and clear. Anderson, a full-grown adult, assumes the same demeanor at 4 as he does as a married man, and he does this without a costume change or changing his voice or speech patterns. But it is clear that he is growing up. There are hints in the dialogue, in the issues that his mother discusses with him, in who is running for President, and because Diane Sykes, as his mother, ages. Initially, she is appropriately brusque, bringing natural humor to the role of Katherine in several running bits. Later, she softens, particularly as demands of her job take their toll, and as the "peanut farmer" assumes the Presidency. Ilana Becker depicts A. J.'s love interests in her multiple roles as tutors and girlfriends. She is a real live Barbie doll, a tiny voluptuous blonde, who both seduces and dismisses the unworldly A. J. Becker brings the same physical look to each role, showing A. J.'s preference in women.
Directed with precision by Melanie Moyer Williams, Henry Kissinger: A Romantic Comedy has the audience sympathizing with all the characters simultaneously and wishing for a time when everything seemed, if not simple, at least simpler.