The lengthy title of Tony Kushner’s lengthy (3h40) new play bows in two directions: to Bernard Shaw’s massive economic treatise, The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1928), on one side, and to Mary Baker Eddy’s gigantic tome, Science and Health, With Key to the Scriptures (1875), on the other. But Kushner’s updated fusion of the two, The Intelligent Homosexual’s 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 they’re emphatic non-believers.
What could lure a leftist longshoreman’s children to theologians is one of innumerable puzzles that Kushner leaves unclarified. He’s much too busy having the theologians, and everyone else onstage, sound off. For prolonged unreelings about such matters as early Christian ecclesiastical texts, Marx’s labor theory of value as applied to sex workers, anarchist choral societies in early-20th-century Italy, or the fine points of translating Horace’s epistles, you’ve come to the right shop. Those in search of a dramatic event may be compelled to look elsewhere.
To be fair, Kushner’s 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 Rossini’s comic-opera finales with the music omitted, they offer an exhilaration that, in tandem with the play’s 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 it’s a high-mettled, frolicsome, intellectually challenging mess, certainly self-indulgent, but never drab.
Yet IHoG’s 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 family’s lone capitalist. Hovering just outside are Empty’s ex-husband, a realtor (Matt Servitto), and her current spouse, Maeve (Danielle Skraastad), a theology student, pregnant by Vito; plus Pill’s longtime lover, Paul (K. Todd Freeman), a professor of “social theology.” Hovering still further out is Eli (Michael Esper), a Yale-educated hustler, Pill’s longtime sexual addiction.
Seeing all these arcana squeezed together evokes a comic strip, or a politicized version of Red Grooms’s “ruckuses”; it certainly doesn’t suggest the taut drama of a suicide watch. And indeed, despite all the sour, embittered fervor Cristofer brings the role, Gus hardly seems suicidal: Kushner’s elaborate contrivance of the family council and the sale of the brownstone seems as factitious as the blurry chronology the script gives Gus’s 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 Gus’s survival. Only Michael Greif’s scrupulous, thorough direction, and the passion in the largely excellent acting, allow IHoG’s narrative to bear any weight. In addition to Cristofer, Wehle’s plangent quietude and Freeman’s subtly escalating fury enhance the drama most. While Kushner’s words are flying, you may not notice how little his drama means.