Coworkers: How was your weekend?
Me: Great! I saw this nearly four-hour play in D.C. about labor unions and the American Communist Party!
Coworkers: [Sounds of crickets chirping]
To put it mildly, Tony Kushner’s gargantuan, garrulous play The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures is not everybody’s cup of borscht.
You have to love words, luxurious skeins of verbiage that stretch out like an endless Persian carpet, metaphoric flights of fancy that form like fat pearls in the actors’ mouths, speeches so labyrinthine that the master of the convoluted sentence—William Faulkner—would doff his trilby with a whistle and concede “Tony, you win!”
You think August Wilson or George Bernard Shaw possess the gift of gab? Hah! They’re a Pinter pause compared to Kushner. And he’s on a roll here, in a zany and brainy grand opera of a play that tackles elder suicide, the labor movement, socialism, communism, Christian Science, the Shining Path, thorny relationships, academia, the gentrification of Brooklyn, homosexuality, family dynamics and the selling out of ideals.
Other than being a word slut, to drink in the experience of this play, you also need to be interested in things no one cares about anymore—even the people involved. Things like the working class, unions, living by an ideology. In a society where only money has meaning and means everything, stuff like a hard day’s work for honest pay, protecting the worker or basing your life on a principle seems crazily out of touch with current reality.
Kushner brings that time back to life in a messy, messianic work set in an Italian-American neighborhood in Brooklyn in 2007—the Bush years, right before the collapse of the real estate bubble.
Gus Marcantonio (Tom Wiggin, in a sinewy, staggering performance ), a retired longshoreman, labor leader and card-carrying member of the Communist party, has called a meeting at the brownstone house that has been in the family since the turn of the century—the 20th century. Production designer Misha Kachman suggests the iconic multi-story Brooklyn brownstone with a towering fireplace, built-in bookcases that float through the set like something out of Alice in Wonderland and a front stoop where the characters go to shoot the breeze and cool off.
Gus is announcing his imminent suicide to his children: Maria Teresa (Susan Rome), nicknamed “Empty” after her initials, a labor lawyer as impassioned and rabble-rousing as her Pop; Pill (Lou Liberatore), a high school history teacher drawn to risky sexual encounters; and Vito (Tim Getman), the youngest and the only avowed capitalist of the group.
They don’t take it well, naturally, and rage, rage against the dying of the light. But Gus insists he’s finished with life and has the beginning of Alzheimer’s. More than that, Gus feels that what he believed in, what he dedicated his life to, isn’t valued anymore and therefore, he’s about as relevant as an old Bolshevik muttering in his tea about the good old days of 1917.
He’s demoralized by what he sees—the shrinking of the working class and the rise of manipulators of private equity—and he wants out.
It’s not so cut-and-dried for Gus’ children. They have complicated lives and complicated feelings towards their father. It’s like a “des, dems and dos” variation on The Cherry Orchard with a modern sensibility toward sexuality. Empty swears she’s a lesbian but enjoys loud sex with her ex-husband Adam (James Whalen) while awaiting the birth of her child with partner Maeve (Lisa Hodsoll), who just happens to have been impregnated with Vito’s sperm.
Pill is married to theology professor Paul (Michael Anthony Williams), but fooling around with a quirky, seductive hustler Eli (Josh Adams), and admits that he prefers paying for sex and casual encounters to commitment.
And did we mention Clio (Rena Cherry Brown), Gus’ sister, a woman of few—but well-chosen—words who is an ex-nun who ran off to join the Shining Path?
In this talkier version of ‘Night Mother, the clan tries to talk Gus out of suicide while going off on tangents about their own problems. Echoes of Odets, Miller and Shaw are seen in the characters’ penchant for lofty ideological debate in a humble, kitchen-sink setting. This all adds texture but seems rather weird that everyone’s so verbose and prone to digression in the midst of what appears to be an emergency—Dad’s gonna kill himself, for heaven’s sake. Shut your pie hole.
The conversations overlap, vie for supremacy and build to cacophonous crescendos like an opera finale, a rich counterpoint to the working stiff ethos of the play. There is also something grand about the acting, thunderous and carved as if these are characters written for the ages.
THE INTELLECTUAL HOMOSEXUAL’S GUIDE…
Closes December 21, 2014
1529 Sixteenth Street, NW
3 hours, 30 minutes with 2 intermissions
Tickets: $45 – $65
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Susan Rome seems like she just stepped out of a Thomas Hart Benton mural, so sharply etched, firm and fierce is her portrayal of Daddy’s girl Empty. Tim Getman is all bluff and brio as the misunderstood baby of the family, Vito, while Lou Liberatore is a seething mass of contradictions as the not-grown up middle-aged man Pill. Josh Adams never fails to give an unexpected twist to his lines and depiction of the tried-and-true role of the pretty, young gay hustler Eli. Similarly, Rena Cherry Brown’s unusual line readings and timing make sister Clio both a model of serenity and an unexpected source of humor.
As the family patriarch, Tom Wiggin gives a staggering performance as a lifelong tough guy and leftie who bears the weight of his realization that the labor movement didn’t fail him but the other way around. His Gus is a hero in the truest sense—strong, deeply flawed, and a man of his word.
Speaking of words, there are acres of them in The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide and references to everything from Garibaldi to the Desert Fathers. There’s no way you can keep up with Kushner’s opulent mind and you’re probably not supposed to—just let the language wash over you.
But you still may wonder—what does it all mean? Could be a lot of delectably perfumed hot air, for all we know. That doesn’t necessarily detract from your enjoyment of Kushner’s sprawling, ambitious work that forces us to think once again about class struggles and the power of the people.
The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures by Tony Kushner . Directed by John Vreeke . Featuring Josh Adams, Rena Cherry Brown, Jenifer Deal, Tim Getman, Lisa Hodsoll, Lou Liberatore, Susan Rome, Sue Jin Song, James Whalen, Tom Wiggin and Michael Anthony Williams . Produced by Theater J . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.
THE INTELLIGENT HOMOSEXUAL’S GUIDE TO CAPITALISM AD SOCIALISM WITH A KEY TO THE SCRIPTURES
Closes Dec 21
Chris Klimek . City Paper The cast with which director John Vreeke has staffed this blowhardy behemoth is remarkable: It takes them longer than you’d think to exhaust your patience for eavesdropping
Roger Catlin . MDTheatreGuide Tom Wiggin brings a growling contentiousness as Gus, a still quite vital 72-year-old former longshoreman
Peter Marks . Washington Post engaging in a sprawling, untamed way — a messy mosaic, encrusted with gems
John Stoltenberg . DCMetroTheaterArts The big ideas packed into iHo are about money, class, labor, property, the worth of work, the value of a human life