Volume 74, Number 19 | September 08 - 14 , 2004


“George & Martha”
Collective: Unconscious, 279 Church St.,
at White St.
Opens Sept. 16 (previews Sept. 10) through Oct. 30
$25; 212-352-0255, or www.TheaterMania.com.

George and Martha as you’ve never seen them before

By Jerry Tallmer

Photo by R. Lasko
Karen Finley & Neal Medlyn in “George & Martha”
It is unlikely that the N.E.A. — is there still an N.E.A.? — will give Karen Finley a grant to further develop her latest work, a play called “George & Martha.”

You remember Karen Finley, one of the nefarious “N.E.A. 4” whose (modest) grants from the National Endowment for the Arts were taken away in the early 1990s thanks to the attacks of Jesse Helms and other bloviating know-nothings.

In fact it is hard not to remember Karen Finley ever since she daubed her naked and attractive self all over with chocolate as a statement about the condition of women in this day and age.

In her new show, which opens Sept. 16 at the Collective: Unconscious, at its new theater on Church St., her body is painted with black-and-white jail stripes, offset by a gold miniskirt and blonde wig. She is Martha Stewart, you see, and she is shacking up with George W. Bush in the presidential suite of a New York City hotel room during the Republican National Convention that we’ve all just lived through.

Ergo, George and Martha. Also as in — and with a bow to — Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Also with reference behind that to the First Couple the Albee drama paid its own implicit bow to, George and Martha Washington.

The reason the N.E.A. is unlikely to give a grant to Ms. Finley for this project is that her “George & Martha” is one of the more sexually and scatologically outrageous works to come along in some time, its theme being the macho-masked impotence of George W., who is costumed only in feathers, to which garb scornful, commanding Martha S., after some posterior examination, further contributes a baby diaper made of feathers.

Says playwright/actress Finley: “I always thought the original play was [pretty sexy and dirty], but I’ve made it even sexier and dirtier.”

Finley is too young to have seen the scarifying1962 Broadway original that starred Uta Hagen, Arthur Hill, Melinda Dillon and George Grizzard, under the direction of Alan Schneider, but she has seen the 1966 Mike Nichols film starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Sandy Dennis and George Segal (screenplay by Ernest Lehman from the Albee play).

“A great film,” Finley says. “The way it keeps so much dialogue going.”

George W. at the Collective Unconscious is played by Neil Medlyn, tagged in a press release as “the self-described Paris Hilton of performance art,” but chosen here by Ms. Finley because, she says, he’s “a young actor originally from Texas who understands George W. Bush, and his nuances, his language, the way he uses his voice.”

Martha Stewart was much in the headlines when, this past spring, Karen Finley was on the road with her “Make Love” show, a Liza Minelli parody that had premiered here at the Fez.

“I’d been working on what was to be called ‘Bush: The Musical’ when, backstage in Minneapolis, my mind just went through a series of associations about George and Martha and Virginia Woolf. I thought it would be a play, and went from there. I’ve appropriated the Albee in terms of metaphor. Came home, started writing, and it went fairly quickly, scene to scene.”

Does Ms. Finley think Martha Stewart should be in jail?

“I think she wants to be in jail” — and that’s in the play too.

As for G. W. Bush ...

A deep sigh. Then: “This Bush dynasty that we’re in: It’s as if we were in a Greek tragedy, or something Shakespearean.”

And his impotence, in your play?

“I believe the real George W. Bush does feel impotent. That’s why he has to be so masculine. He identifies with his mother — Barbara Bush, the real George Washington — and so has to prove his potency with his hyper masculinity.”

And oh yes, she watched the Republican National Convention, sort of — or tried to.

“I started to watch, but then couldn’t watch any more. It was too upsetting. Watched Bush 10 minutes. Couldn’t watch Cheney at all. All of them using New York that way. I turned Bush off after he got going on the diary or memoir of a firefighter at 9/11.

“I got so angry, particularly since my brother-in-law was an E.M.S. worker who survived 9/11. Bush and all of them exploiting it. It was like revisiting a rape or something. The biggest sort of cruelty.

“And then there was Schwarzenegger. Here he is, this Austrian, and there was his wife, Maria Shriver, a part of the Democratic dynasty. I just felt he was having so much delight forcing his wife to sit next to Bush, right next to the enemy: the most abusive situation.”

Who does Karen Finley think will win this election?

“Oh, man.” Another deep sigh. “Well, I guess I have to say I hope Kerry.” Otherwise she may have to write Act II of that Greek tragedy.

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