The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures
nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
May 4, 2011
It’s hard to be a thinking person these days. When the bulk of our interactions revolve around choosing what we wish to buy, the bulk of our time and energy spent working to pay for it, and the bulk of the entertainments on offer designed to distract us from the resultant debt we’re accumulating, do you really want to—no, do you really feel like it’s even possible for you to—spend an evening watching a play that reminds you of all the political goings-on of today and how they inevitably connect to the political goings-on of so many yesterdays of which your cognizance rapidly dwindles down to nothing?
I’m not asking this idly—it’s something I struggle with every time I witness the work of Tony Kushner or one of his few equals in the English-language theater. His new play at the Public Theater (a co-production with the Signature Theater), The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures (or iHo, as the playwright calls it) is an exhilarating and humbling experience. The premise is a family being called home by its patriarch who has decided he is ready to end his life. What else can I tell you about this richly-detailed, verbally-astounding theatrical feast?
Summer 2007, Brooklyn brownstone—been in the family for a century; Gus (patriarch): retired-longshoreman and avid pro-union activist; three adult children: Maria-Teresa, or Empty, daddy’s girl, aspiring-doctor-turned-nurse-turned-labor-lawyer, lesbian with pregnant theologian partner; PierLuigi, or Pill, gay high school history teacher still working on his dissertation—from which this play derives most of its title (a take-off on Shaw’s “The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism” coined by Paul, Pill’s husband, another theologian)—and also in love with Eli, a Yale-educated escort to whom he’s paid over $30k of borrowed family money; and V. (Vincent, carpenter/handy-man, wife and two kids, living two blocks from his childhood home); also around: Gus’s sister Clio (ex-Carmelite, ex-Maoist, ex-ex-pat, living with Gus since his previous suicide attempt the year before). And those are just the facts you learn in the first scene of the play.
One big erudite loving family. Truly. I mention this because while there are plenty of differing opinions—plenty of exasperation at one another’s points of view—there is a fundamental sense of a group of people trying to work it out. It = do we persuade our father/father-in-law/brother to live or honor his wish to die? (The 73-year-old Gus initially cites impending Alzheimer’s, but we soon learn that his reasons are quite the opposite of losing his ability to remember.) In the words of Pill, “I was raised to believe you must belong, to a, a class, to a party, to a cell or a cadre… and if you find yourself a stranger within it, if it’s hard, if the affinity’s almost impossible to, to discern anymore, to sustain—you make it possible.” But it is this devotion to working it out together that brings about so many more interesting problems—trenchant, almost ineffable doubts—to the conversation. Agreement is so much more compelling than discord—not because it is like-mindedness, but because it is like-minds at once tolerating and mourning their differences.
Michael Grief’s production of iHo features an extraordinary company of eleven actors, including a couple of Kushner veterans. Linda Emond and Stephen Spinella, stars of Homebody/Kabul and Angels in America, respectively, play Empty and Pill, also respectively, with such easy fullness that their every utterance is an autobiography unto itself. Actor-playwright Michael Cristofer’s Gus is a gentle-spirited thunderously-voiced self-educated intellectual and it is no wonder that V (Steven Pasquale), his non-intellectual, not-gentle-spirited youngest son (who bears the mark of his mother’s death as she gave birth to him), cannot feel at all close to him. (Pasquale imbues V—a critical representation in this otherwise scholarly bunch— with a dignity that makes his character impossible to dismiss.) Other highlights are Brenda Wehle’s Clio, a world-weary sphinx; Danielle Skraastad’s Maeve, Empty’s sweetly-unbearable pregnant wife who talks like she is defending her dissertation; and Hettienne Park’s Sooze, V’s unconditionally friendly and utterly unflappable wife. K. Todd Freeman, Matt Servitto, Michael Esper, and Molly Price all give strong performances as well, rounding out the ensemble.
Tony Kushner—recently denied an honorary degree from CUNY due to a distorted, sound-bite-driven assessment of his politics—is a tremendously thoughtful, nuanced, rigorous, self-questioning examiner of history whose primary talent is playwriting. (That he has, additionally, a heavy touch of the poet and the humorist is almost unfair.) His word-rich style can seem intimidating, but it is really an invitation. His plays seem to say: you, witnessing this, you are a part of this, too. This cannot happen without you. What do you think?