theater review

The Dazzling, Dizzying Tangle of Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide…

There are no angels, fallen or fixed, horny or haranguing, in The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures, Tony Kushner’s often blindingly radiant, sometimes frustratingly remote, always un-look-away-able new megaplay, the wobbly crown atop a theater season scarred with leftist self-flagellation. In iHo (as its author has obligingly abbreviated it), the skies don’t crack open, because there are no skies. A low iron cornice seems to cap the ancestral Carroll Gardens brownstone of the Marcantonio family, foreclosing on possibility, growth, hope itself — everything except a lot of grim laughs (some hyperliterate, many gratifyingly low) and some of the fiercest neo-Shavian insights into humanity’s socio-spiritual penury since, well, Shaw. Whom Kushner, brilliant brat that he is, references in his sprawling title — then impishly disses in the first scene. That’s our boy, and that’s the play, too: The tablecloth yanked from beneath the standing vase — ta da! But wait, let’s try that trick again, and this time … let’s yank out the table!

The table being yanked here is quite an antique. It’s been host to Lomans, Tyrones, and generations of unhappy American families, but never one with this many graduate degrees. The open pocket door of a forever-darkened parlor gaping behind him, Gus (Michael Cristofer), the aging, radical paterfamilias of the red-diaper Marcantonio clan, announces a plan to kill himself. He pleads Alzheimer’s, but his children aren’t sure … about anything, really, and the more they hold forth — this is a family of talkers — the less sure they get. This makeshift death panel of ornery progeny consists of graying, straying eternal grad student PierLuigi, a.k.a. “Pill” (Stephen Spinella), the labor lawyer and stealth cynic Maria Theresa, known as Empty (Linda Emond, vying heroically with a role as shifty as her character’s name); and entrepreneurial, aggrieved youngest-sib Vito, or “V” (Steven Pasquale, whose anger both simmers and convinces). The kids suspect that Dad’s depressed, and hold out hope that all this talk of self-slaughter might just be a load of deferred agitprop from a man with too much time on his hands. Gus has lived work-free for more than 30 years, teaching himself dead languages and subsisting on his beloved union’s crowning victory: a guaranteed annual income for longshoremen squeezed into obsolescence by air freight and the mechanization of the harbors.

But this glorious class victory has amounted, in practice, to a pinker-hued golden parachute. Gus is on his own in his now multi-million-dollar house, alone with his winnings — his children estranged, his union withered, his Party vaporized — not to mention sins of decadent compromise and crypto-cupidity he’s never dared admit. Cristofer, with his smoky voice and furtive meanderings, is already halfway to ghostliness, but when he comes roaring out of his fog, watch out. For someone who represents a doomed point of view and a death drive, he feels dangerously alive. Entombed in his own good fortune, cut off from the workers of the world, he’s looking for a way out — the honorable exit of the antique Roman. But is suicide the ne plus ultra of social selflessness or the ultimate capitalist affirmation of the almighty self? These are the sorts of questions families squabble about over cold cuts in Kushner plays. Answers, of course, are harder to come by. IHo is a play about negation: If Angels in America was Kushner’s Great Society-size gambit to annex History itself—for the theater, for social justice, for the possibility of Civilizational Upgrade even beyond the bristling Self-defense grid welded permanently in place by Reagan—hen this is Kushner for the Age of Austerity. Mother of mercy, iHo’s only four hours long! If some stereotypical Italian matriarch were hanging around, she’d cluck, “Tony! Why donna you putta some meat on dose bones! You wastin’ away!”

Needless to say (and thank God), these aren’t those sorts of Italians. (They are, as one character notes, “the only Italians on the fucking planet who can’t cook a fucking egg.”) And honestly, I’m not sure what sort of Italians these are: The characters in iHo — for all the delectably dialectic pleasures of their clashing points of view — feel a tad overideated and a bit underdone. This is less apparent in the group scenes, intellectual mosh pits of twelve-tone crosstalk, where Kushner seems to be approximating the noise he hears coming through the Internet. (If there’s a villain in iHo, it’s the Illusion of Infinite Possibility — the demon seems to torment both characters and playwright, simultaneously.) With something bordering on fury, Kushner crams fat torrents of thoughtstream through his audience’s limited bandwidth. Dialectic goes quadraphonic, and we’re overwhelmed yet at the same time strangely quarantined from the action. As a member of the feed-me, info-soaked, ADD generation Kushner’s railing against, I’d personally like to be ravished, engulfed by his critique.

The representative of that generation, Pill’s lover and whore Eli (Michael Esper) is always taking refuge in his iPhone. It’s a little glib, but then, everything about Eli’s a little glib. He helps bring the play in for a rather perfect three-point landing, and there’s more than a whiff of synthesis about him: As a Pygmalion reference, he works on several levels. He is a college-educated hooker, after all — the sort of late-period Woody Allen stock character I doubt Kushner would get away with, if written as a straight woman instead of a gay man — and emotionally compartmentalized in ways that feel a bit convenient. Pill, who’s married to a hot-tempered theologian named Paul (K. Todd Freeman, preaching down the house), is addicted to sex-for-hire, and Spinella digs deep to flesh out his character’s troubled relationship with abstractions like Money and Love. (“Betrayal is my only safety,” he says, echoing his forebear, Angels’ Louis Ironson. Later, he confesses his prostitution yen to Gus, explaining his ability to accept the risk to his marriage, to his health, to his soul: “I trusted the money as a kind of prophylaxis.”) But Pill is less successful when it comes to coping with real people, and so is Kushner, in fashioning Pill’s arc. Neither Paul nor Eli, for all the soaring and searing rhetoric, feels much like a breathing being, nor does either feel entirely like permanent residents of this play. Nor, for that matter, does Empty’s pregnant lover, Maeve (Danielle Skraastad), or Vito’s nearly invisible wife, Sooze (Hettienne Park), both of whom are practically dismissed from the stage, and, in any case, seem to have only fleeting opinions on plot beats of crucial importance to them. Major sexual betrayals, labor — like water off a duck’s back, these little episodes. In smaller, bravura parts, Brenda Wehle (as Clio, Gus’s beyond-beyond-radical sister, a veteran of many cults) and The Sopranos’ Matt Servitto (as Empty’s deceptively ineffectual real-estate middle-macher of an ex-husband) make off with whole scenes, mainly because Kushner’s assigned them simpler tasks. If you subscribed to a sort of many-worlds theory of playwriting, you might suspect alternate realities of impinging: Sometimes, iHo is more of a galactic cluster of accumulated prospecti, held together by immense Kushnerian gravity.

In fact, as rapt as I was, I don’t think I ever truly believed these people were a cohesive family — even a nontraditional, overeducated one. That they earned their way into my heart nonetheless, via my brain, is a testament to Kushner’s overwhelming and ultimately irresistible will as an artist and his immense, logorrheic verbal prowess. Oddly, I wanted to be closer to his din, not farther away: director Michael Greif can deal with many bodies in motion at once, in ways that most directors can’t imagine. But he tends to let his characters sing their solos in the clear, and I don’t always feel the complex harmonics of real dialogue. When Kusher doubles and triples the amount of talk — forcing you to choose what personal podcast to eavesdrop on — Greif’s bias toward aria doesn’t help him make sense of the white noise. I’d have preferred a smaller theater, I think, allowing a truly disconcerting immersion in babble: I wanted Greif to push the chaos into my lap, to let the play stampede over the audience. Instead, I felt myself hovering above the fray. As an audience member, I don’t deserve an angel’s perch.

The Dazzling, Dizzying Tangle of Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide…