By Christian Viveros-Faun√©
By Miriam Felton-Dansky
By Tom Sellar
By Tom Sellar
By Jessica Dawson
By Tom Sellar
By R. C. Baker
By Tom Sellar
The lengthy title of Tony Kushners lengthy (3h40) new play bows in two directions: to Bernard Shaws massive economic treatise, The Intelligent Womans Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1928), on one side, and to Mary Baker Eddys gigantic tome, Science and Health, With Key to the Scriptures (1875), on the other. But Kushners updated fusion of the two, The Intelligent Homosexuals Guide to Capitalism and Socialism, With a Key to the Scriptures (Public Theater), hereinafter abbreviated as IHoG, fuses neither the approaches nor the substance of these two wildly disparate works.
Instead, we get a fusion of a more typically Kushnerian kind: The shape of a conventional, one-set realistic play, racked and distended to admit not only side-issue subplots but a host of flamboyant rhetorical digressions on subjects ranging from the supernatural to the sordid. What other playwright would focus on the family of a Communist longshoreman while including in his cast of characters no less than two academic theologians? Both stress, of course, that theyre emphatic non-believers.
What could lure a leftist longshoremans children to theologians is one of innumerable puzzles that Kushner leaves unclarified. Hes much too busy having the theologians, and everyone else onstage, sound off. For prolonged unreelings about such matters as early Christian ecclesiastical texts, Marxs labor theory of value as applied to sex workers, anarchist choral societies in early-20th-century Italy, or the fine points of translating Horaces epistles, youve come to the right shop. Those in search of a dramatic event may be compelled to look elsewhere.
To be fair, Kushners high-flying speeches, which swoop and veer like hawks across the skies above the earthbound plod of his dramatic action, constitute a sort of theatrical event in themselves. Often crisscrossing, in a coordinated multivoice babble that suggests one of Rossinis comic-opera finales with the music omitted, they offer an exhilaration that, in tandem with the plays continual touching on one or another of a string of big themes, makes you glad to have sat through an evening that otherwise, when added up, leaves you with only frustrating tidbits of a puzzle unfinished as well as unsolved. Whether the exhilaration outweighs the frustration is for audiences to decide. Here, in either case, they at least have a playwright who has not settled for putting everything together tidily in a set of predigested assumptions. If what he offers instead is an inchoate mess, at least its a high-mettled, frolicsome, intellectually challenging mess, certainly self-indulgent, but never drab.
Yet IHoGs context seems drab enough. Gus (Michael Cristofer), a retired longshoreman and Communist union organizer, has attempted suicide and wants to try again. For approval, he calls a family conference at his Brooklyn brownstone, where his sister, Clio (Brenda Wehle), a radical ex-nun, watches over him. Enter his children: Pill (Stephen Spinella), a gay high school history teacher; Empty (Linda Emond), a lesbian labor lawyer; and Vito (Steven Pasquale), a building contractor, the familys lone capitalist. Hovering just outside are Emptys ex-husband, a realtor (Matt Servitto), and her current spouse, Maeve (Danielle Skraastad), a theology student, pregnant by Vito; plus Pills longtime lover, Paul (K. Todd Freeman), a professor of social theology. Hovering still further out is Eli (Michael Esper), a Yale-educated hustler, Pills longtime sexual addiction.
Seeing all these arcana squeezed together evokes a comic strip, or a politicized version of Red Groomss ruckuses; it certainly doesnt suggest the taut drama of a suicide watch. And indeed, despite all the sour, embittered fervor Cristofer brings the role, Gus hardly seems suicidal: Kushners elaborate contrivance of the family council and the sale of the brownstone seems as factitious as the blurry chronology the script gives Guss union career. (He appears to have made his way openly espousing Communism just when unions were expunging CP members from their ranks.) The other stories, each equally paper-thin in its details, seem merely to have a distant, hi-there connection with the central issue of Guss survival. Only Michael Greifs scrupulous, thorough direction, and the passion in the largely excellent acting, allow IHoGs narrative to bear any weight. In addition to Cristofer, Wehles plangent quietude and Freemans subtly escalating fury enhance the drama most. While Kushners words are flying, you may not notice how little his drama means.