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The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism
with a Key to the Scriptures

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Michael Cristofer, Brenda Wehle, Stephen Spinella, K. Todd Freeman, and Linda Emond.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Every time an argument erupts in Tony Kushner's latest play—which is often—every character not involved in the screaming proceeds with life and chit-chat as though they were surrounded by complete silence. This is not accidental. The Marcantonios of Brooklyn, gathered together over a weekend in June of 2007 to (possibly) say goodbye to their (possibly) Alzheimer's diseaseĀ–stricken patriarch, comprises nothing but agitators of one kind or another. They're used to speaking anything and everything they say, regardless of whether anyone is listening—or even wants to. It's difficult to imagine a better metaphor for the play itself, which Kushner has loquaciously titled The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.

That's a somewhat whimsical, but not entirely inappropriate, take-off on Mary Baker Eddy's Christian Science handbook (replace the first eight words with "Science and Health"), and appears briefly in the play itself as the title of the long-aborning dissertation of the oldest son, Pill. (We're talking decades, here.) It's also as close as Kushner gets to nimble fun. This coproduction of the Signature Theatre Company, which is presenting it as the second entry in its Tony Kushner season (following the successful Angels in America), and The Public Theater, which is housing it at its Lafayette Street home, does not want for things to say. Clocking in at three hours and 45 minutes, with two intermissions, with nearly every moment of that time devoted to whirling, barbed speeches and heartfelt proclamations about the greatness of unions and leftism in general, it is, in terms of sheer volume (in every sense of the word), a substantial work.

Unlike this playwright's best shows, however, it's not one that readily lingers in either your heart or your mind for longer than it takes to tell its story. Angels, Homebody/Kabul, and Caroline, or Change, to name but three of his more prominent works, create their own genres—Kushner is at his best when being subversive, countercultural, and above all reactionary. But iHo (Kushner's own, much-appreciated, reduction of the title) is more ardently derivative, set in more or less the present day but otherwise a conglomeration of the kinds of kitchen-sink drama Kushner has spent so long elaborately decrying: William Inge's artful dysfunction, Arthur Miller's family-in-crisis attitudinizing, and Clifford Odets's naked progressivism. This proves both limiting and debilitating: In trying to force-fit his elegant-epic style into a conventional framework, Kushner cheapens both and illuminates neither.

Stephen Spinella with Michael Esper.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

He gives us Gus (Michael Cristofer), the 72-year-old retired longshoreman who's considering ending his own life to put a halt to the boredom and guilt that are filling his rabble-rousing-free days, on the pretext (and hardly a rock-solid one) that his mind is going. It's an idea that his three children—Pill (Stephen Spinella), daughter Empty (Linda Emond), and youngest son Vince (Stephen Pasquale)—are predictably not in favor of. They all have their reasons, of course, and seeing how they unfold is supposed to be sufficient engine for the tension that's wrench them apart just when they should be coming together. But scenes of promise, concerning the relationship between dad (who's frustrated at not being able to make big changes) and daughter (who, as a lawyer, is content with altering the world one case at a time) or dad and sons (Gus didn't accept Pill's coming out initially; Vince has always resented his dad for being bribed out of work with a guaranteed annual income), are diluted by subsidiary stories that add little more than bulk.

Pill's partnership with Paul (K. Todd Freeman), is in danger because Pill has developed uncontrollable feelings for a young hustler named Eli (Michael Esper). So out of control did Pill get with Eli, in fact, that he gave him $30,000—which he borrowed from Empty. That money was to be used for her and her partner, Maeve (Danielle Skraastad), to conceive a baby from an anonymous sperm donor, so when it vanished, the two women had to turn to Vince to donate his, uh, services. Which he did—albeit in a way that neither Empty nor his own wife Sooze (Hettienne Park) would quite approve of. To make matters worse, Empty's ex-husband, Adam (Matt Servitto), still living downstairs in Gus's house well after the divorce, is helping Gus to sell it right out from under everyone else's feet. And why is Gus's live-in sister, Clio (Brenda Wehle), a recovering nun and revolutionary, choosing this exact three-day span to move back to the wilds of New Jersey?

Per Kushner's usual, the details are meticulously implemented, and combined with Michael Greif's unflinching direction, you can't help but see everyone onstage as atoms who've spent generations colliding and releasing energy that's built up the world while eroding their own bonds. (Mark Wendland's set, which blends the specific, wide-open spaces of a Carroll Gardens brownstone with more nebulous climes outside the borough, gives them plenty of room to orbit.) But aside from a few interesting kernels—how workplace organizing and giving birth are just slightly different versions of the same kind of labor, the premise that there's no such thing as one individual's pain within the confines of a family—these notions are not developed in particularly innovative or insightful ways. This is the sort of play where two characters embrace passionately before intermission, and then raise the curtain on the next act in the middle of a drag-out fight: The exploration, of anything and everything, is far more important than the destination.

Michael Cristofer with Steven Pasquale.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

As a result, there is no real endpoint. Perhaps parent and children come to an understanding, perhaps they don't; perhaps Gus has reached a decision, perhaps he hasn't. Again, Kushner's usually sweeping view of our existence as but a slice of a much larger pie does not compel him to uncover much except stasis. That can be justifiable, too, but Kushner never really bothers. After some of the brawls these folks get into—there's a real doozy, involving every major character and consuming some 15 minutes of stage time, at the end of Act II—you want a catharsis, even if only an inconclusive one. You don't get it.

At least you get a lot of first-rate acting. Spinella's brittle pain, Emond's gaunt weariness, and Pasquale's chip-on-the-shoulder bravado are exquisite fits for these characters in delineating three unique visions of Gus's philosophy as filtered to the next generation. Wehle is a mistress of the quip, which proves vital for the sharp-edged Clio. Skraastad, Servitto, and Freeman provide firm fire as official significant others, both past and present, and Esper unlocks every nuance in the energetic enigma that is Eli. Molly Price appears in only one scene, as a bringer of either relief or release, but makes a powerful impression.

The chief exception is Cristofer, who's oddly uncommitted as Gus. You don't believe, as you ought to, that he was once the driving force of the New York docks, or that he could convince anyone of anything. Yes, he's lost his passion and his hope, but Cristofer doesn't even present flickers of either quality, to say anything of the broad strokes of subdued intellectual giant who would translate works from multiple dead languages in his spare time. The role cries out for a James Tyrone type, a towering figure in decline, and Cristofer can't get all the way there.

To be fair, neither can Kushner. Like Gus, iHo is a rebel that's lost its cause, but is insistent on maintaining full shout even after it's made its point five, 10, 15 times. Before long, the words just become noise. In that way, and in only that way, do you know exactly how the Marcantonios feel.

The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures
Through June 12
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
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