The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures: Theater Review

Joan Marcus
This is unmistakably a Tony Kushner play -- sprawling, stimulating and powered by unquenchable intellectual curiosity.

The "Angels in America" playwright's first full-length play in nearly ten years centers on a retired longshoreman who gathers his family to vote on his plan to commit suicide.

NEW YORK – The title and the playwright's reputation make it no surprise that The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures is a brainy, brawny, thematically expansive work, stuffed with challenging sociopolitical ideas and dialectical fireworks. But Tony Kushner's first new full-length play in almost ten years is at heart an emotionally charged family drama.

Commissioned by the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis for its 2009 Kushner festival, the play's title borrows from George Bernard Shaw and Mary Baker Eddie. Referred to in the writer's shorthand as iHo, it deals with economic injustice, self-sabotaging liberals, working-class disenfranchisement and the violation of American myths. It takes stock of the failure of the radical-progressive revolutionary agenda and of the imperviousness to change of a capitalist society, an intransigence that has wrought both frustration and complacency.

That's undeniably a lot of 21st century disillusionment to cram into a play -- even one running 3 hours, 40 minutes -- and the rippling perspectives are at times overwhelming. But Kushner's social engagement and his intellectualism are balanced, as always, by his penetrating humanism. The play's ideological reflections are all firmly rooted in its characters.

At the center of them is the tragic figure of Gus Marcantonio (Michael Cristofer), a third-generation Communist Party member and descendant of New York socialist politician Vito Marcantonio. A retired longshoreman and union organizer, widower Gus spends his twilight years translating Horace from the Latin. Aware that his politics are as obsolete as the language he has taught himself, he no longer wants to live with the compromises of his past or the betrayals of his world. Convinced he has early-stage Alzheimer's and only too willing to articulate his despair, Gus gathers his family in their Brooklyn brownstone in 2007 to vote on his plan to commit suicide.

Like characters from an uncommonly smart soap, the clan includes Gus' stoic sister Clio (Brenda Wehle), a Carmelite nun-turned-Maoist; his three screwed-up red-diaper babies (all of them cryptically nicknamed); and their partners, who navigate the family's volatility with as much impatience as indulgence.

Empty (Linda Emond) is a lesbian labor lawyer whose still besotted ex-husband, Adam (Matt Servitto), lives in the basement apartment. Her partner, Maeve (Danielle Skraastad), is about to give birth to a baby for which Empty's construction worker brother V (Steven Pasquale) served as the sperm donor. Gay older brother Pill (Stephen Spinella) is a floundering academic who fled New York to escape an obsessive love affair with Yale-educated hustler Eli (Michael Esper) and save his longterm marriage to Paul (K. Todd Freeman). Also on hand is V's Asian-American wife Sooze (Hettienne Park).

Kushner's plays are famously subject to ongoing revisions, and this one could use further focus, particularly in defining Gus, Pill or Empty as the emotional center. While detours into Pill's relationship with Eli make pertinent points about the commodification of love and desire, they spend too much time outside the main plot. Nor does it help that African-American Paul is a speechifying martyr.

But the painful, angry process of the family members as they refuse, accept or distance themselves from Gus' seemingly irrevocable decision is orchestrated with passion and explosive spontaneity. The highlight of the play is a sustained second-act cacophony of overlapping dialogue that captures the heat of dissent and half-buried resentments with a thrilling verisimilitude both awful and hilarious.

Maeve, Clio and Paul all dabble in theological studies, which allows Kushner to stir God into the mix, along with politics and class.

Director Michael Greif, who staged last season's exquisite Angels in America revival, has a fine understanding of the rumblings, the periods of intense contemplation and the thunderclaps of Kushner's language. Encompassing two floors and a porch, Mark Wendland's masterful set makes the perfect arena for this internecine battle, underlining that a family's house is the vessel for its history, but also a means by which it can be erased.

Greif's cast is fully committed to the complexities of these flawed and often far from sympathetic characters, conditioned by a set of beliefs and values they struggle to honor.

Standout work comes Cristofer, all grim, wounded purposefulness, stubborn convictions and snarling self-justification; Emond, whose hardheaded character is the biggest chip off the old block; Pasquale, hurt and vulnerable, yet spitting out V's soured opinion of the union movement as a body blow to Gus; Wehle, her Sphinx-like composure cracked by the driest of observations; and Skraastad, whose tightly wound rants pierce the tension with spiky humor.

The play has echoes of Arthur Miller and Clifford Odets, a wry reference to Chekhov and even a vague nod to Tennessee Williams, who knew better than anyone that the kindness of strangers could be bought, as Gus perhaps discovers at the end. Comparisons also are inevitable with Tracy Letts' August: Osage County, another howling epic about a scrappy family, that one beginning with a suicide rather than inching toward a pre-announced one.

Kushner is making hard assessments here on family, community and country, the forces that shape who we are and how we think. But even in a drama built out of a sense of hopelessness, the playwright never surrenders to negativism; in his final scenes, he opens a door to death while preparing for new life.

Venue: Public Theater, New York (Runs through June 12)
Cast: Michael Cristofer, Linda Emond, Michael Esper, K. Todd Freeman, Hettienne Park, Steven Pasquale, Molly Price, Matt Servitto, Danielle Skraastad, Stephen Spinella, Brenda Wehle
Playwright: Tony Kushner
Director: Michael Greif
Set designer: Mark Wendland
Costume designer: Clint Ramos
Lighting designer: Kevin Adams
Sound designer: Ken Travis
Music: Michael Friedman
Presented by the Public Theater, Signature Theatre Company, in association with the Guthrie Theater