Word of mouth going into Friday night’s world premiere of the new play by Tony Kushner— The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures —was a bit unsettling. “It’s three-and-a-half hours long,” people were saying, as if plays have some sort of built-in pain/misery index that crosses the ethical bounds of torture somewhere around the two-and-a-half-hour mark. Reports of Kushner writing feverishly all day and delivering whole new scenes to the cast two hours before curtain made the greatest living playwright of our time sound more like a procrastinating teenager who can’t get his homework in on time. Then there was Kushner himself, in print and on the radio, humbly lowering everyone’s expectations, asking people—especially critics—to think of it as more of a workshop production than a finished play.
In the end, however, I suspect that the initial buzz over The Intelligent Homosexual will be over what the play is not, rather than what it is. For starters, it is nothing like Angels in America —or, for that matter, anything else Kushner has ever written. There are no metaphysical flights of fancy, no angels or spirits or ghosts. Nothing outside the realm of everyday reality intrudes on the stage; there are no talking kitchen appliances and nothing inanimate ever springs to life. There are no stage effects or gimmicks. Heck, there aren’t even any long, hyper-articulate tirades against Republicans.
Indeed, the strangest thing about The Intelligent Homosexual is that there is nothing particularly strange about it. It is a straight-ahead, no-nonsense, old-fashioned play that takes place almost entirely inside a three-level brownstone in Brooklyn. The characters spend most of their time in the dining room, in three acts that follow a more-or-less traditional dramatic arc. The structure and execution of The Intelligent Homosexual are so traditional, in fact, that it looks like a loving homage to the greatest playwrights of the past 150 years. There are direct references within the play to George Bernard Shaw and Anton Chekhov, and if you watch closely there are nods to Henrik Ibsen, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, etc.—anyone, in short, who has ever put a dysfunctional family onstage and invited us to watch them unravel before our very eyes.
Another thing The Intelligent Homsexual isn’t is boring. The first two hours fly by quickly, and the various arguments and discussions the family has are as smart and funny as they are serious and intense. Kushner has concentrated so much neuroticism and ambivalence into a single family that it’s, well, comical. The setup is simple: Gus Marcantonio, a retired dockworker and unapologetic communist (played brilliantly by Michael Cristofer), has decided that it’s time to kill himself, and his children have come back to the Brooklyn brownstone where they grew up to try to talk him out of it.
The long extended irony of the play is that while everyone in the family is trying to convince Gus not to go through with the ultimate act of self-destruction, they all are engaged in some form of slow self-sabotage and/or -destruction themselves. There’s the gay son who is married to a man in Minneapolis but who has spent a small fortune on dalliances with a young male prostitute. There’s the lesbian sister who gave the gay brother the $30,000 he blew on sex in order to prevent her partner from using the money for in-vitro fertilization to get pregnant—and whose ex-husband lives in the basement, where she goes from time to time to have heterosexual comfort sex. Then there’s her lesbian partner, who got pregnant by taking the bargain option of using sperm from Vino, the straight brother, who is still reeling emotionally from his father’s first suicide attempt, a botched wrist-slitting exercise in the upstairs bathtub. And, just to add an extra measure of melting-pot Americana to the mix, the gay son’s husband is black, Vino’s wife is Asian, and the rest of the family is Italian.
Clearly, what Kushner has done is work very hard—so hard that it feels somewhat contrived—to turn the Marcantonio family into an extended metaphor for contemporary America. (Gus even wants to kill himself before the housing bubble bursts.) The wonderful and brilliant thing Kushner has done (the thing I think this play will eventually be heralded for in the future) is to wrap this ultra-contemporary drama in the nostalgic trappings of Gus Marcantonio’s previous world as a devoted Marxist, communist, union leader, and tireless defender of the working class.
The Marcantonio’s were raised on labor-union rhetoric, and their discussions are peppered with all sorts of references to Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, and other lesser figures of the progressive socialism movement of the early 20th century. Even a simple exchange of money between the gay brother and his young male prostitute balloons into a philosophical discussion over the “commoditization” of sex and the relationship between people, power, products, and money.
Likewise, Gus is constantly repeating slogans from his union days—“Labor creates wealth, and should own the wealth it creates,” “The only real death is to live meaninglessly”—and while he acknowledges that the communist party is almost dead (he wants to die before it does), the act of resurrecting those old slogans and songs onstage is a reminder that the struggle between labor and capital is an ongoing one, and that the world is in the midst of a time of reckoning over the relative merits of capitalism and socialism. More importantly, this isn’t a conversation without precedent. In fact, if you go back and read your Marx, Kushner suggests, all of the economic uncertainty and volatility we’re experiencing now is an entirely predictable (and predicted) result of capitalism run amok. Capitalism asks “What do you want?”—but, in the words of Pill, the gay brother, “Some people can’t handle infinite possibility.” He certainly can’t—and neither can the rest of the family.
Another layer promised in the play’s grandiose title is a “key to the scriptures,” and, as it happens, three of the characters are professional spiritualists. Paul, the black gay husband (Michael Potts), teaches theology in the U of M’s GLBT department (there are quite a few crowd-pleasing local references), the pregnant lesbian Maive (Charity Jones) is a theologian scholar who specializes in “dispensationalism,” and Gus’s sister, Bennie (Kathleen Chalfant) is an ex-Carmelite nun turned Christian Scientist whose spiritual path has evidently sapped her of the ability to display emotion. Gus, of course, is an atheist, so there is also plenty of discussion about the meaning of death and a person’s right to choose when and how they want to go, especially if they have Alzheimer’s, as Gus claims to.
As you may have surmised, there is a lot packed into this play. Fortunately, Kushner has an almost unerring instinct for when things are getting too intellectually hefty, and that’s when he inevitably throws in a joke. In fact, he is a master at using the serious tension of a moment to set up a laugh, much the way August Wilson does, or, well, Shakespeare. One of the running jokes is that, despite their ostensible intelligence, the homosexuals in this play can't figure out how to stop undermining their own relationships. The answer is so trite (if you're in a committ ed, monogamous relationship, don't cheat!) that it hardly occurs to them. Then again, this is just a "guide," not a bible, so the rules of engagement (or lack thereof) are evidently open to interpretation and negotiation.
The Intelligent Homosexual isn’t a great play yet. But it is a very good play that’s on its way to becoming an important and perhaps great one. Kushner still has some trimming and tightening to do (unless he decides to turn it into an epic), and the structure of the play still has some visible scaffolding. There are a few two many moments where everyone is talking at once that need some attention, as well as a couple of plot points that come and go for no apparent reason. But all in all, The Intelligent Homosexual is much closer to being a finished product (the set is fabulous) than I or anyone has been led to believe. Indeed, part of the thrill here will be watching this play evolve and mature over the course of its run, as one of the finest playwrights alive carves away at the gem he is trying to reveal. I have no doubt that it will eventually gleam brightly in the Kushner canon, if for no other reason than it is so ripe for study by scholars and graduate students. So much history, philosophy, theology, sociology, and psychology has been layered into this play that you could easily see it two or three times and still not catch it all. The great thing about it, though, is that you don’t have to understand Marxist theory or theological deconstructionism to enjoy it. In so many ways, The Intelligent Homosexual is just an old-fashioned piece of dramatic entertainment waiting to be discovered by a new audience—one that has never seen anything like it from Tony Kushner, ever before.
The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures continues at the Guthrie through June 28, guthrietheater.org.
Photo credit: Michal Daniel