Stephen Spinella, left, and Michael Esper in “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide…”
at the Public Theater
Photo by Joan Marcus
‘The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism, With a Key to the Scriptures’
Written by Tony Kushner
Directed by Michael Greif
Public Theater, New York City
The centerpiece of Signature Theatre Company’s season-long tribute to Tony Kushner, “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism, With a Key to the Scriptures” is the kind of overstuffed, untidy intellectual feast of a play that we’ve come to expect from this author.
I suspect that Kushner dreamed up the title before he wrote a word of the play. He knew he wanted to intertwine sexuality, politics, and religion, thus the nods to George Bernard Shaw, Mary Baker Eddy, and, well, himself (cf. the subtitle to “Angels in America”: “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes”). It turns out to be an elaborate Italian-American family drama set in Brooklyn in the three-story brownstone of retired longshoreman Gus Marcantonio (played by Michael Cristofer), the 75-year-old paterfamilias who thinks he’s coming down with Alzheimer’s and whose threats to repeat an earlier suicide attempt convince his sister Clio (Brenda Wehle) to summon his three children to talk him out of it.
All three of them are fucked-up or conflicted to some degree and show up with their various spouse-equivalents: schoolteacher Pill (Stephen Spinella) and his longtime companion Paul (K. Todd Freeman), a theologian who’s had to put up with Pill’s sex addiction and his attachment to a young hustler named Eli (Michael Esper); labor attorney Empty (Linda Emond), her former husband, Adam (Matt Servitto)—also a lawyer who lives with and looks after Gus—and her pregnant partner, Maeve (Danielle Skraastad), also a theologian and former student of Paul’s; and contractor Vito (Steven Pasquale) and his wife Sooze (Hettienne Park). This being a Tony Kushner play, they get together and talk, and talk, and talk, with occasional bursts of fucking. The family inevitably stands as a metaphor for American society, declining, crazy, addicted to pleasure and excess, ambivalent about money, spiritually lost. Picture a commie/homo “August: Osage County.”
Kushner has stuffed a lot into the play (see the video short, below). A committed gay Jewish socialist, he uses this family saga to examine the closest thing to an American experiment in socialism, the labor union movement, while at the same time critiquing it (a true Marxist, he makes sure that nothing and no one is presented positively without being confronted with some dialectic opposite or alternative or shadow side). Kushner hangs all his influences and role models out on the line for everyone to see—he name-checks Shaw’s “Major Barbara” at the top of Act I, introduces Act II with opera to set up a string of high-pitched overlapping passionate family arguments, and wraps things up with a blazing neon arrow pointing to “The Cherry Orchard.” It’s all interesting, sometimes funny, and not terribly engaging emotionally. There’s a lot of history and a lot of thought but it hangs uneasily on these characters and this plot.
When I saw the play first staged by Michael Greif with some of the same actors at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 2009, I recognized that it was impressively ambitious and somewhat undercooked. For the New York production, also staged by Greif at the Public Theater, the play has been trimmed a bit, but the strengths and weaknesses still remain. In his chosen role of public intellectual, Kushner makes his writing a repository for his thinking on all the subjects that obsess him—money, sex, death, politics, religion, and especially the intersection of some or all of those.At his best, he embeds that thinking into rich, quirky, fully developed characters. Here he succeeds best in the relationship between the father and the daughter. Every bit of Gus’s thoughtful, questing history and the way he has invested his legacy in his brainy, caring daughter Maria Theresa (aka Empty) remains engrossing, largely thanks to the excellent performances of Cristofer and especially Emond (an actor whose relationship with Kushner brings out the virtuosity in both of them).
By contrast, the character of Paul is excruciatingly one-note: he’s the play’s only black character and basically all he does is yell at the white people. He’s like “Angels in America”’s Belize without the humor or sex. Other characters also verge on the two-dimensional. In the Minneapolis production, Gus’s sister seemed thinly drawn, with so little to do except represent moral rectitude that Kushner had the good sense to have someone else say to her, “Drop the Yoda routine already.” At the Guthrie the character was named Bennie and played by Kathleen Chalfant, a wonderful actress who was instrumental to the original production of “Angels in America.” At the Public Theater, the character (now named Clio) is played by Brenda Wehle, another fine veteran actor, who somehow makes it work—her gravitas has layers of dry humor, world-weariness, and shrewdness about family dynamics that didn’t show up in Chalfant’s performance. Meanwhile, Empty’s partner Maeve, who seemed perfectly lively at the Guthrie when played by Charity Jones, comes across as more of a placeholder for an idea than a plausible character, which has something to do with Danielle Skraastad’s performance or the way she’s directed.
Too much of the play’s dialogue sounds like Kushner having a conversation with himself rather than conversations that even these hyper-educated, argumentative characters would be having. Tons of arcane references to Marxist theorists and labor-movement heroes fly by faster than anyone could possibly take them in, which smacks not just of hasty writing but smarty-pants pretentiousness. (The Guthrie published online a dense 16-page study guide, which was the only way most audience members would find out who Chantal Mouffe, Paul Marlor Sweezy, or Ellen Meiksins Wood are, or the difference between apophatic and cataphatic theology.)
But the biggest problem with the play is Spinella’s character Pill, who after Gus and Empty is the central figure in the story. (The name of the play, by the way, comes from the working title, mentioned in passing, of Pill’s Ph.D. dissertation on the history of the labor movement, which he’s been supposedly working on for over a decade.) I don’t know whether to fault the writing or the performance, but Pill is so uncharismatic, so unreliable, so weaselly and self-justifying that it’s hard to believe that his boyfriend would stay with him for 26 years, that a cute young hustler would fall in love with him, and/or that his sister would hand over to him $30,000 she’d been saving to have a baby with Maeve so that Pill could indulge his obsession with Eli. I also found it a little hard to buy Gus’s wanting to commit suicide because he thinks he has Alzheimer’s—I mean, the man is translating Horace’s “Odes” as a hobby, when he’s not reliving labor movement history and quoting “Capital” chapter and verse with his yakky kids! Nevertheless, the scene in which Shelle (Molly Price), who went through the experience with her husband who had ALS, sits down with Gus and Empty for a detailed how-to lesson on self-delivery is one of the highlights of the play.
No question about it, Tony Kushner can write beautifully. I respect his desire to write a Shavian family drama of ideas, and clearly he is also paying homage to Arthur Miller’s socially minded, naturalistic family dramas (shades of “View from a Bridge” and “All My Sons” creep in here). What I miss are the flights of theatricality and other-worldliness that enliven the thickets of heady talk in “Angels in America” and “Caroline or Change.”
Like “Caroline,” the new play is fixated on money—what it can buy, what it can’t, what it means, how it helps, how it hurts—in a way that we recognize from our daily lives but that hardly ever shows up so nakedly in the theater. There are a couple of scenes in “Intelligent Homo” when Michael Esper’s Eli spends a ridiculously long amount of time waving around a wad of bills, the $600 he charges Pill for spending two hours in his company. As with the obsessive accounting of every nickel and quarter and the crucial $20 bill in “Caroline,” the money is right up front and center.
In the final scene of “Intelligent Homo,” Eli is alone with Gus, who questions him with a combination of Marxist frankness and hetero prurience—“They pay you for sex? What does $300 buy?” (A speech by Pill earlier in Act III has already spelled out for us one layer of Eli’s symbolic representation: “Appetite plus abstracted value equals capitalism.”) The exchange between these two guys ends the play on a perfectly Kushnerian note:
ELI: What do you want? (long pause) What are you thinking?
GUS: I’m thinking.