Theater review: 'The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures' at the Public Theater
Complain all you want about Tony Kushner’s latest play. Yes, it’s disorderly, rambling, frequently unconvincing and ultimately frustrating. Heck, even the title — “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures” — is unwieldy. But I walked into New York’s Public Theater, where the play opened Thursday, genuinely excited to find out what was on the author’s mind and left with enough food for thought to last a theatrical winter.
Not many American playwrights provoke such a keen sense of intellectual anticipation. (Or apparently as much unwarranted controversy, as witnessed by the recent City University of New York decision not to award Kushner an honorary degree because of comments he made about Israel.) More often than not we go to the theater to feel rather than to think. We’re gluttons for sentiment, ascetics when it comes to debate.
Kushner, however, has a patented gift for sweeping political and cultural synthesis (“Angels in America”), geopolitical prescience (“Homebody/Kabul)” and ardent historical reflection (“Caroline, or Change”). I attended this New York premiere, directed by Michael Greif, with the same edge-of-the-seat interest of a sporting fan about to watch formidable rivals square off — except that the rivals in this case, I knew, would be hotly contested ideas in a game in which victory and defeat wouldn’t be so easy to sort out.
It was a little disorienting at first to find the action of “Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide” set in territory more familiar to Arthur Miller than Kushner. The dominant locale is a brownstone in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, one of those spacious family-owned houses that investment bankers and blue-chip lawyers are always on the look-out to remodel in their lust for luxurious gentrification. (Remember the residence in the film “Moonstruck”? Similar type, only a couple of neighborhoods away and a few bus stops from the Red Hook of “A View From the Bridge.”)
Kitchen-sink realism isn’t Kushner’s natural mode, but the play, which has been reworked since its 2009 Guthrie Theater premiere, harks back to older dramaturgical models, both American and European. Mark Wendland’s set may not have a running faucet, but the heavy furnishings, piles of books and scattered artifacts of daily life situate us squarely in the realm of vintage domestic drama. Don’t worry: If your eyes don’t pick up on the genre’s clues, your ears certainly will. The boisterous cross-talk that fills the stage for the play’s 3-hour, 40-minute duration makes the squabbling family members of Odets’ “Awake and Sing” seem like Quakers.
Intellectually restless, Kushner usually enjoys the quick cutaway, but here he indulges his appetite for the Eugene O’Neill-style long scene. At the center of this unhurried attention is Gus (Michael Cristofer), the 72-year-old patriarch of the Marcantonio clan, who has announced to his family his plan to kill himself. A retired longshoreman, impassioned union organizer and lifetime Communist Party member, Gus claims he’s not motivated by depression or loneliness. His rationale for suicide is more complicated. He says he has incipient Alzheimer’s and wants to sell the house before the real estate market goes bust (the play is set in 2007, just before the great crash), but the real reason seems to be his despair over the way the world — and his ideals — have turned out. He’s brutally disappointed and wants his death to signal his defiance.
Into this soap opera Kushner imports myriad plot lines, with each family member adding to the spiraling mishegas. The unresolved issues Gus’ middle-aged children have with him have colored their relationships with their significant others. Their identities are still in flux, and their capacity for commitment has been compromised by a father who has been an ideological tyrant.
Pill (Stephen Spinella), a gay high school history teacher whose long-term relationship with Paul (K. Todd Freeman), a theology professor, is foundering, has restarted an affair with a Yale-educated hustler, Eli (Michael Esper), who wants more than Pill’s money. Empty (Linda Emond), a labor lawyer and the closest to Gus in disposition, has conflicted feelings about the baby her partner, Maeve (Danielle Skraastad), is about to have and finds herself tumbling into bed with her ex-husband, Adam (Matt Servitto), who lives in the garden apartment of Gus’ building. And V (Steven Pasquale), a private contractor who’s married to Sooze (Hettienne Park), perennially feels underappreciated by his father and spends much of the time fixing a hole in the wall he keeps making larger every time he loses his temper.
Sitting around the dining room table while Gus attempts to defend his right to off himself is his sister, Clio (Brenda Wehle), an ex-nun and former Maoist, who has given up working for the poor for the last year to be with her unstable brother. Recognizing that she can’t save him, she has decided to leave, and it’s her imminent departure that has all the children worried about what to do next. They don’t want to sacrifice any more of their lives for him, but they’re not ready to abandon him either.
“Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide” contains a multitude of references to landmark plays, from “The Cherry Orchard” to “Death of a Salesman,” with sidelong salutes to such contemporary works as “’night, Mother,” and “August: Osage County.” Yet the drama is entirely Kushnerian in its preoccupation with the subjects contained in its overloaded title. There are op-ed bulletins on the economy, diatribes on the state of politics, riffs on gay issues and oblique musings on spiritual concerns.
Themes and theatrical precedents are crammed to the breaking point. It’s as though Kushner is attempting to give form to the Western tradition (at least in its American aesethetic and political manifestations) just as it’s about to keel over from exhaustion and disillusionment. This is thrillingly ambitious, but the author’s playwriting craft has trouble keeping pace with his grandiose vision, which is once again measuring the gap between tidy theory and messy, unpredictable life. And Greif’s production, assured as it is, can’t rectify structural wrongs.
Gus’ predicament has the bogus air of a dramatic conceit. Not that his suicidal determination doesn’t have multiple causes, but there’s something contrived about the way it serves as the plot’s skeleton. And for a play so taken up with the manners of realism, Gus’ words and actions can seem awfully farfetched. I wasn’t entirely convinced that he was Italian, never mind that he was prepared to stuff himself with pills then put a plastic bag over his head. (This prospective suicide has the rackety lead-up of an Academy Awards ceremony.) Cristofer does his best to make it all seem believable (including the specious, inconclusive ending), but not even two of Kushner’s most treasured interpreters, Spinella and Emond, are able to disguise the implausibility.
Then there’s the problem of sprawl. This isn’t about time or efficiency but about poetic mastery, organic flow of ideas and grace of movement. In its current swollen form, “Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide” resembles Pill’s unfinished dissertation — 30 years in the making, 75,000 pages, tentatively called (pointedly enough) “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism.”
Kushner’s talent for self-criticism is endearing, but what his wise, challenging and heartbroken play really needs is a tough editor.
Photos: Top: Michael Esper and Stephen Spinella. Bottom: Steven Pasquale and Michael Cristofer. Credit: AP Photo/Boneau/Bryan-Brown, Joan Marcus