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Kathleen Turner Stars as Molly Ivins at Westwood's Geffen Playhouse

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Red Hot Patriot: the Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins runs until February 12th.

Molly Ivins was a fearless, funny and influential newspaper columnist who reigned over the New York/Texas journalism axis for several decades. I had the pleasure of meeting her several times when we both were living in New York. The first occasion was at a party hosted by a woman named Dorothy Schiff, who owned the New York Post when it was a liberal bastion and not the right-wing Murdoch monstrosity of today. (Rupert bought the paper from her for $31 million.) Molly's buddy, columnist Liz Smith, introduced us, and Molly made a deep, lasting impression on me with her wit and wisdom. (The fact that she was a scintillating, attractive redhead was not lost on me.) From then on I was an Ivins fan, and continued to read her when she moved to Dallas. And, like any red-blooded American boy, I have been enamored of Kathleen Turner since those sizzling-hot scenes in Body Heat with William Hurt, and if you don't know what I mean, you should get a DVD of it.

kathleen turner as mollie ivins

Kathleen Turner as Molly Ivins at the Geffen Playhouse!

In the spring of 2010 Kathleen starred as Molly in the world premiere of Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins at the Philadelphia Theatre Center. It was a perfect fit, and at last night's opening at Westwood's Geffen Theatre, she again demonstrated why. Someone asked me what made Ivins a fit subject for a one-woman show (with an assist from young Matthew Van Oss as the silent Helper). I replied that she was a brassy Texas reporter whose liberal journalism skyrocketed her to national prominance... and how many people can say that they wrote the New York Times obituary (1977) of Elvis Presley?? Liz Smith called her the modern-day Mark Twain, and I once wrote a review of her work saying that she was the most widely-read pain-in-the-ass to whatever powers-that-be who were most annoying that day. It happens that her political commentaries were akin to my own sensibilities, but I did have a few friends that said she was a rabid nut. So be it. The show is absolutely wonderful, entertaining and illuminating... and fiercely topical to today's helter-skelter events, weaving personal anecdotes with her colorful take on national politics. Although the New York Times had hired her to bring life to its staid writing style, her political edginess and controversial social commentaries eventually proved to be too much for the Old Gray Lady. The fact that she showed up in the city room in bluejeans, often barefoot, and with a dog with an expletive for a name (Little Sh-t), did not sit well. Molly moved back to the Texas papers which embraced her sharp-tongued political humor.

Mollie Ivins writers and cast

Kathleen Turner with the two writers, Margaret and Allison Engel, and the Helper, Matthew Van Oss.

Molly first came to attention in Austin, Texas in the early seventies with her biting political commentaries, drawing the attention of folklorist John Henry Faulk and the future governor of Texas, Ann Richards, soon to be close friends. Her writing for the Washington Post and then New York Times brought her to Manhattan in '76. On August 17th, 1977, she wrote the much-acclaimed Presley obit, but her contentious commentaries clashed with the Times' editors. She left in '82 after reporting about a "community chicken-killing festival" in New Mexico and calling it a "gang-pluck." About this, her Wikipedia entry recounts that Abe Rosenthal, the nit-picking Times editor, accused her of trying to inspire readers to think "dirty thoughts" and Molly exited by ironically saying, "Damn if I could fool you, Mr. Rosenthal."

She wrote for the Dallas Times-Herald for the next ten years, even though she hated that city. ("Dallas is the kind of city which would root for Goliath over David.") In those pre-Internet days, I would pick up the Texas paper on certain newstands just to get her column. She died of breast cancer in January, 2007 at age 62. Molly never married, although she had a long-time relationship with a noted sports writer. Liz Smith once told me that Molly's first boyfriend had died in a motorcycle accident while at Yale and she never recovered from that. George W. Bush was a frequent target of her jibes (was he ever!). She knew him from high school in Houston and named him Shrub and, later, Dubya. She was a fervent opponent of the Iraq war and wrote advocating his impeachment in 2004. Bush commented after her death: "I respected her convictions, her passionate belief in the power of words. Her quick wit and commitment will be missed."

I loved her comment after Pat Buchanan railed at the 1992 Republican convention against Bill Clinton and all liberal causes: "It probably sounded better in the original German." Her last column ended: "We are the people who run this country. We are the deciders. And every single day, every single one of us needs to step outside and take some action to stop this war. We need people in the streets, banging pots and pans and demanding, 'Stop it, now!'" And that's why I miss Molly Ivins.

kathleen turner as mollie ivins

Another view of Kathleen as Molly.

The play was written by twin sisters Margaret and Allison Engel and directed by the acclaimed David Esbjornson. The writers have been respected working journalists and educators for many years, but as a food critic I have a particular affinity for their work; they co-wrote Food Finds: America's Best Local Foods and the People Who Produce Them, and then turned the book into a seven-year run on the Food Network, today on the Travel Channel. Tickets to the show ($72-87) can be purchased at The Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Westwood, (310) 208-5454 or online at www.geffenplayhouse.com. It runs 75 minutes without an intermission, and you will love this tour-de-force!

To subscribe to Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter ($70 for twelve monthly issues), email him at jayweston@sbcglobal.net