06 June 2011

'The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide'

[Because of a computer glitch, I’ve written my recent theater reports in reverse order, from the most recent (Lynn Nottage’s By The Way, Meet Vera Stark at the Second Stage Theatre, posted on ROT on 27 May, to the earliest just before the break-down, Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo on Broadway, coming up on ROT soon), so I’ve made some references below to a play I hadn’t seen at the time I saw IHG. I just hope that doesn’t disrupt the space-time continuum! ~Rick]

I was very excited to see the highly-anticipated new Tony Kushner play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, the New York première of Kushner’s latest work which débuted at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 2009. (It’s been reworked some since that première and Erik Haagensen of Back Stage even suggests that Kushner’s still not finished with the script.) My theater friend, Diana, and I had seen Angels in America at the Signature (who co-produced IHG here with the Public and the Guthrie) and even though I saw the Broadway preem of the two-part play back in 1993-94, I’d been thrilled with the revival—as witness my report on ROT (11 December 2010). Also, Kushner is a playwright I find fascinating and intellectually stimulating as well as artistically venturesome. (Like it or not—and I did, a great deal—theater people have to acknowledge that Angels was groundbreaking both in its topics and themes and in its theatricality.) Even when I’ve seen Kushner plays I didn’t like all that much, like Homebody/Kabul, I’ve found them interesting and challenging. So I was really looking forward to the new encounter with this writer. Even the mixed reviews were encouraging, especially Ben Brantley’s notice in the New York Times. So when Diana and I left the Public Theater after the 3½-hour performance on Friday evening, 13 May (inauspicious date), I was both confused and disappointed. This was the second time in a row that that happened to me. (The other was Bengal Tiger, on which I’ll report shortly—as soon as I sort out what I saw!)

I’m tempted to launch right into the problems I had with IHG, but I’ll try to rein myself in and do this properly—reporting on what I saw and what went through my mind (such as it is) as I watched Kushner’s three-act (yes, two intermissions!) opus. (The play’s full title is an allusion to two literary-historical works: Shaw’s essay “The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism” and Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.) The play, which was commissioned by the Guthrie, centers on an Italian-American family in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, in the summer of 2007. Gus Marcantonio, the patriarch, is a retired longshoreman and a Marxist-anarchist from a long line of Italian labor radicals. (There was actually a Vito Anthony Marcantonio, a member of the American Labor Party, who served as a socialist congressman from New York between 1935 and 1951. The congressman’s supposed to have been a cousin of Gus’s and the namesake of his youngest son—his photo has pride of place on the brownstone living room wall—and gets a substantial mention in IHG when the eldest son gives a quick lesson in American labor politics.) Gus has raised his children in his leftist philosophy, and his sister, Clio, is a former Carmelite nun who’s a Maoist activist who supported both the Shining Path and the Tupac Amaru in Peru. The Marcantonios are the definition of a dysfunctional family. Pill (yes, that’s right—it’s for Pier Luigi) is a gay high school history teacher with romantic and commitment problems and a plethora of personal demons and doubts. Empty (that from M.T., for Maria Teresa), a lesbian who was a nurse and is now a labor lawyer. Empty’s partner, Maeve, is pregnant with a child fathered by Empty’s younger brother V—and Empty’s ex-husband, Adam, lives in a garden apartment in Gus’s house. V (for Vito), the youngest child, is a free-lance contractor who’s never felt fully part of the family partly because he’s much younger than his brother and sister—and because the children’s mother died giving birth to him. He’s also the least intellectual (because he’s not gay?) of the siblings, which also makes him feel left out, since all the family discussion end up being debates over philosophy and history, ancient and current. This makes V frustrated and angry, but while the rest of the family lashes out with words and arguments, V takes a bust of Garibaldi and smashes a hole in the living room wall (where he discovers a hidden cache of family papers and photos—a kind of MacGuffin since we don’t learn its contents until the end of the play).

Adding to the mix, besides Maeve, a theologian, and Adam, a real estate lawyer who’s secretly buying Gus’s house and sees himself as Lopakhin from The Cherry Orchard, the buyer of the Ranevskaya estate, are Pill’s partner, Paul, a generally buttoned-down theology professor (he was one of Maeve’s teachers) who moved to Minneapolis with his lover because Pill developed an obsessive attraction to Eli, a handsome young hustler from whom Pill can’t seem to stay away. V’s accommodating and unflappable Korean-American wife, Sooze, makes several appearances as well. A pretty crowded play, character-wise—and there’s at least one scene in which they all show up in Gus’s already over-furnished living room. (I had something of a problem keeping all the character’s straight, between their relationships to one another and their various attributes and problems.) Brantley wryly dubbed the play August: King’s County for its large and disputatious extended-family cast.

The array of dramatis personæ is made more complex because each character has several conflicts and issues she or he has to thrash out over the course of the drama. Keeping all of them sorted out was harder for me than keeping the characters straight. (Elisabeth Vincentelli in the New York Post wrote cleverly, “Watching Tony Kushner's new drama is like being in a washing machine: soak, agitate, spin. And repeat . . . .”) Some are integral to the play and others are tangential; some are profound and some are slight. For instance, Pill, whose problems are at the center of the plot (if there can be a title character in IHG, Pill is it: the “intelligent homosexual”), along with his father’s, is in conflict over his relationships with Paul and Eli; Paul and Pill also are at odds about their move to Minneapolis—Paul followed Pill, who fled there to separate himself from the temptation of Eli. Pill and Gus have several clashes over Gus’s decision to sell the family brownstone, the father’s recent move to burn family papers (which Pill wants for the dissertation he’s been writing for three decades—called, not coincidentally, "The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures"—on a dock strike in which his father had helped win a historic victory for labor), and several other matters. Of course, the major plot issue is Gus’s announcement that he intends to kill himself—he claims he’s suffering from Alzheimer’s, though the evidence is meager and no one quite accepts the self-diagnosis—and the family arguments usually turn to this question and its variations. (In the last act, Shelle, the widow of a longshoreman in Gus’s union, brings Gus the pills and paraphernalia he’ll need to suffocate himself and gives a graphic, horrifyingly detailed explanation of how to proceed.) All these diverse issues (and there are more, since each character has a number that aren’t shared by the rest) constitute another problem I had with IHG: keeping track of all Kushner’s themes, ideas, and points.

Okay, let’s get to the problems at which I’ve been hinting all this time. Put simplistically, there’s just too much. (I feel a little like Emperor Joseph in Amadeus complaining that Mozart’s music had too many notes in it.) I can’t help it: there are too many characters, too many ideas, too much intellectuality, too many references (Garibaldi, King Umberto, the aforementioned Congressman Marcantonio, Chekhov, Shaw, and even Mary Baker Eddy), and way too much sitting around talking (disputing, really). There was a lot going on in Angels, too, but it all seemed to be going somewhere, even if some was tangential or minor. It was also mostly the kind of thing most of us—or at least I, I guess—could get a hold of and understand—or at least connect to something we (I) knew. The dropped names, theories, or historical events in IHG are often so obscure—unless you’re really up on your labor history and radical politics—that I couldn’t follow much of it (and spent time distracted while I tried to sort it out in my head). I don’t think the play’s really about the labor struggle, though I’m not really sure what it is about yet, so it seemed to me as if Kushner had all these notes lying around from other projects—religion; suicide; unions; radical politics and revolution; family dynamics; sex and prostitution; marriage, love, and loyalty; secrets and lies (and self-deceptions); and real estate—so he tossed them all together into one 3½-hour grab bag. (Kushner is acknowledged as one of the country’s few remaining “public intellectuals”—the New York Times said he has “a visceral commitment to ideas made flesh”— and it’s pretty clear he has a socialistic vein running through his personal philosophy. I don’t actually quarrel with his politics.) I spent so much time trying to follow the ideas and search for Kushner’s main theme(s) that I paid less attention to the acting, which for the most part was fine, or the production. Now, I confess I don’t know at this stage if Kushner just didn’t have a clear point, or if it was so crowded out by all the topics the play lights on—though I strongly suspect the latter and I’m just not smart enough to winnow it out. Ben Brantley wrote in the Times that Kushner’s asking how we live after our lifelong belief system collapses, but that seems too amorphous a subject for IHG, essentially a family play confined to a townhouse in Brooklyn (with a couple of side trips to Manhattan), and, more importantly, I didn’t feel Kushner made that point, though he may have asked the question. (Angels in America explored this question, but it was two plays and ranged from New York City to Antarctica and Heaven.) IHG, though it’s immensely ambitious, is simply too personal for the characters to be about such a philosophical query. Somewhere, it’s about love, betrayal, family, and responsibility—but I haven’t been able to sort out the specifics.

A great part of my problem, I think, comes from what turns out to be a big difference between Lynn Nottage’s Vera Stark and IHG. I spotted the problem as soon as I left the Public on the 13th, but it became much clearer after I saw Vera Stark on the 19th. In my report on Nottage’s play, I said she didn’t just tell us what she was getting at, she showed us. Too much of IHG comes off as a lecture or a class, not a theatrical experience. I hate to get all academic on you, but both at Vera Stark and after IHG, I keep thinking of Brecht’s admonition that theater must be a demonstration of the characters’ actions so we see what they’re up to (and can then form a response to what we see). That’s what Nottage did, and what Kushner didn’t. He kept telling us what he wanted us to know, not showing us. Granted, Kushner’s ideas are complex and profound, but that doesn’t make theater. Remember my two criteria for good theater: do more than tell a story and do it theatrically? Well, Kushner meets the first criterion: he definitely has something on his mind; but he misses the target on the second standard: he’s especially not theatrical in IHG.

I wish he’d come closer to the mark because he has some mighty good artists up there. Stephen Spinella (ironically, the original Prior Walter in the Broadway preem of Angels) is a manically conflicted Pill (and he really is a pill—you just want to go up to him and shake him by the shoulders), a middle-aged, Italian Catholic Louis Ironson from Angels—a man who can’t sort out his own conflicts and lets them possess and fill him with guilt him until he can’t act at all. Like Kushner himself, Pill over-intellectualizes everything. If Spinella weren’t as good an actor as he is, the character might be insufferable. Michael Cristofer is a sternly, immovably curmudgeonly Gus, who gives no ground and isn’t above using a little coercion to get his children to give in to what he wants, even when that’s his own death. Brenda Wehle reminded me, especially vocally, of Colleen Dewhust; her Clio, despite her radical politics, is the real firm ground of the family emotionally, keeping the family from literally spinning off into space. Young Eli, the hooker with whom Pill is obsessed, could easily become a cliché, the shallow bimbo, like Cowboy in Boys in the Band, but Michael Esper’s portrayal is sympathetic to Pill, who infuriates him nonetheless, and has frequent flashes of deep understanding—Eli did go to Yale—of both Pill’s personal struggles and the history and politics with which the teacher regales him. Eli’s final scene with Gus, after Pill has left town, is particularly affecting. The rest of the company is really just as accomplished as they come in and out of the story—Linda Emond’s Empty, Steven Pasquale’s V, K. Todd Freeman’s Paul, Danielle Straastad’s Maeve, Matt Servitto’s Adam, Hettienne Park’s Sooze, and Molly Price’s Shelle—and it’s a shame to omit them, but the point is that while the acting was first-rate all around, there was so little connection among the disparate aspects of the script (a critical complaint with which I wholeheartedly disagreed in the case of Vera Stark) that the characters seldom really connect either, and that’s Kushner’s fault (and maybe director Michael Greif’s a little), not the cast’s. (Greif, it should be noted, also directed the Signature’s excellent revival of Angels at the beginning of the season.) I’m sure it was hard to humanize the living lecture notes that Kushner created for IHG, but what little humanity comes across is due to the actors. Director Greif does an able job keeping everything from truly spinning out of control, but he can’t overcome Kushner’s overreaching.

Mark Wendland’s scenic design was mostly focused on the living room of the Marcantonio townhouse, a place of memories, mementoes, and life’s detritus. The room looks like Gus—a rumpled jumble of recollections and family history. The side trips to Manhattan are rendered simply and unobtrusively with a few set pieces and a backdrop if necessary and Eli’s walk-up SRO is appropriately cramped and characterless, with the footlocker lodged against the end of the metal cot. Clint Ramos’s costumes were also appropriate, if unremarkable—which may have been the point. The clothes looked like what the characters would wear, without making statements of any kind—fashion or otherwise. (This is a diametrical contrast with the work of ESosa’s designs in Vera Stark.)

It’s important to note that no play by Tony Kushner is without interest or even drama. The characters, for all their argumentativeness and over-thinking, are not uninteresting or unsympathetic. It’s hard to accept Gus’s desire to die, even though we see that it’s not because he has Alzheimer’s but because he’s lost his faith in the philosophy he once espoused so vigorously that he passed it along to his children like a catechism. I just wish Kushner’d trimmed the overlong script. The scene with the suicide assister, Shelle, for all its horror, is both unnecessary and jarring. The scenes between Eli and Pill in Eli’s room and in a park (where Pill tells the story of Congressman Marcantonio), if they can’t be entirely cut, at least seem suitable for shortening and combining. It’s a mark of the play’s coldness that the scene in Eli’s SRO, which basically takes place on his bed, isn’t a sex scene but a discussion of dialectics! Several of the group scenes, in which the dialogue overlaps unintelligibly as if Kushner were trying on stage to imitate Robert Altman’s film work (particularly A Wedding), could be pruned and streamlined. The artificiality of those cacophonous scenes, by the way, is demonstrated by Greif’s tactic of letting them build to unintelligibility until there’s a line we must hear. Then everyone shuts up until the line’s delivered; afterward they return to the din. Angels in America is long, even in its individual parts, but it’s never enervating; The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide, in contrast, is like a 3½-hour class: protracted and hard to keep in focus.

[However I may feel about this particular Kushner play, I have only immense respect for his impulse to address important issues in his art. Whether political or social or even personal, and whether or not I agree with the writer’s final position, Kushner always has something to say that’s worth hearing—nay, vital to hear. Readers may know by now that the playwright was disrespected early in May when, after being selected by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a division of CUNY, to receive an honorary degree and address its commencement ceremony, the board of CUNY withdrew the honor on the request of a lone board member. The reason offered was that Kushner had expressed some criticism of Israel and its policies regarding Palestinians. No one on the board spoke against the withdrawal and no one bothered to seek Kushner’s statement. After the press revealed the CUNY action, the ensuing uproar among intellectuals and academics, as well as several politicians, demanding the reversal of the insult to one of the country’s most open-minded and thoughtful artists, the CUNY board was forced to make a U-turn and re-extend the offer. I have no connection to CUNY, but I am ashamed to live in a city whose educational branch—CUNY is a public institution for New York City residents the same way that a state university is for citizens of that state, the only such city college system in the country, I believe—could engage in such a blatant suppression of free speech and freedom of academic thought. Even had Kushner actually said something egregious about Israel, punishing him for his political ideas is patently unconstitutional. But all he did was take exception to some of Israel’s policies and actions, a position I myself have taken. (Both Kushner and I are Jewish, by the way.) Back in the ‘60s, conservatives took great exception to anyone who criticized the United States actions in places like Southeast Asia or its treatment of racial minorities. Criticism was seen as a form of treason; of course, criticism of our government is as American as you can get—its why we have the First Amendment. Acting as they have because Tony Kushner was critical of Israel, the CUNY board and anyone who supported its action have disgraced themselves and demonstrated that they’re no longer worthy to direct an academic institution in this country.]

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