I could quip that even the title of playwright Tony Kushner's latest work needs editing. But in reviewing such a sprawling, gut-punching, morbid, hilarious, and ridiculously dense and reference-packed work of theater by a Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning playwright, I don't want to come off as glib. The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures made its West Coast premiere last night at Berkeley Rep, and like Kushner's earlier and best known work, Angels In America, it is epic, historic, and soulfully academic in its scope. The Berkeley cast does their damnedest to wrap their mouths and bodies around this contentious and messy piece of theater, but ultimately it's hard not to feel as with the most indulgent academic essays that Kushner used 10,000 words to say something that could have been said in 100.
That's not to say that The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide... (Kushner abbreviates it in interviews to iHo) isn't a worthwhile play. It is, by any stretch, an exciting and rich work of American letters, and like all of Kushner's work, it's woven thickly with his wit, his astute perspective both historical and literary, and his voracious intellectual appetite. But it's a play that Kushner himself admits was still in draft form as it first went into rehearsals could probably have benefited from a lengthier or more rigorous workshop period. It may, simply, be a victim of Kushner's own notoriety and respect in the theater community, and there were not enough voices guiding how the thing could have been cut down from its exhausting three hours and forty-five minutes. (I gather via cast members that Kushner was on-site in Berkeley rewriting scenes during rehearsals for this production as well.)
Kushner is an artist who thinks in an intricate web of ideas and references. Take just the title, for starters. It's a reference to George Bernard Shaw, whose play Major Barbara (which saw a revival this season at A.C.T.) is also referenced in the first scene, who wrote an essay titled "The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism." Add to that a reference to Mary Baker Eddy, whose early Christian Science doctrine gets discussed by the character of Aunt Clio (Randy Danson in a stoic and nuanced performance), and whose Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures is a central text of that religion. The title gives clues to Kushner's varied touchstones in the script, which are, primarily but not exclusively, labor law, leftist politics, Marxism, the American labor movement, sex work, homosexual relationships, theology, assisted suicide, and the death of the American Communist Party. One should expect nothing less of a Kushner work, and throughout Act One, the thrills and delights of Kushner's manic mind come one after another amidst a family drama set in Brooklyn in 2007.
The drama centers on the 72-year-old patriarch of this Italian-American clan, Gus (played with admirable, frustrated defeat by Mark Margolis, who some will recognize from his Emmy-nominated role as the bell-ringing Tio on Breaking Bad), and Gus's announced intention to kill himself. He already has one suicide attempt under his belt, from a year earlier, and he spends the play unapologetically explaining and justifying his choice to his three children and his sister. The children are Pill (arguably the "intelligent homosexual" of the title, though his sister also qualifies, played by Lou Liberatore), whose nickname came from Pier Luigi and who's a failed doctoral candidate in labor history; Empty, derived from Maria Teresa via the initials M.T., his late-in-life lesbian sister who's a nurse turned labor lawyer (played with great, sharp honesty by accomplished television and stage actress Deirdre Lovejoy); and Vito, the youngest in the family, who's now a high-end contractor (played by Joseph J. Parks). Adding color to the clan are their three significant others: Pill's husband Paul (played with marvelous, booming spite by Tyrone Mitchell Henderson); Empty's pregnant partner Maeve (the very funny Liz Wisan); Vito's wife Sooze (Tina Chilip, who harnesses some hilarious moments despite brief on-stage time); as well as Empty's ex-husband Adam (played by always spot-on local actor Anthony Fusco) who lives in the garden apartment downstairs. And there are two Kushner-esque benevolent angels in the cast too, swooping in and adding a further layer of emotion and conflict: Eli, a whip-smart hustler whom Pill fell in love with who has deeply threatened Pill's marriage (played by talented Juilliard grad Jordan Geiger); and Michelle, a woman who only swoops in briefly in Act Three (Robynn Rodriguez).
Kushner, and subsequently director Tony Taccone, thrusts these characters onto stage in various combinations, very often talking over each other or simultaneously in a cacophonous symphony of words, throughout the play's long running time, methodically working through each of their fears, failures, and desires as they relate to one another. The effect is, as I said, often thrilling and I was mostly engaged with the experimental use of so much simultaneous dialogue, where an audience member can scan across the tableau, listening and picking out phrases from each character as they choose, though the device gets a bit worn out by the final act. They argue. A lot. Gus and his brood argue over his choice to kill himself, never entirely reaching a satisfying conclusion other than the fact that Gus feels he failed the labor movement he devoted his life to and now has nothing left to give to the world. They argue, more generally, about Marx and modern Communism and contemporary politics. Pill and Paul argue over their degraded, compromised love, and Pill's attachment to this young hustler who, a little bizarrely, loves him fiercely in return. Empty argues with her ex about how to save her father, and argues with her partner over their soon-to-be baby. No one is especially happy, and it's only Paul, as an outsider who knows the family intimately after 26 years with Pill, who's able to storm in the room in Act One and tell them all, in a terrific monologue, exactly how infected they've all been by their father's iconoclasm and socialist obsessions.
But the play devolves by the middle of the second act, as it enters its third hour, and with it so did some of the performances in last night's show. With so many thousands of dense words to memorize, it's no wonder that after a brief week of previews a few players started stumbling on their lines and breaking up the rhythms of the action. And there are two one-on-one scenes at the dining room table, one between Empty and Aunt Clio and one between Empty and her father in the final act, that both fell weirdly flat and repetitive both examples, in my mind, of scenes that should have been cut or egregiously trimmed before the 2011 off-Broadway run. Virtually every argument, or theme, gets attacked from several angles in Kushner's script, which becomes laden with far too much historical context about the last 100 years of the labor movement, in the way of an exhaustive academic treatise. Kushner is at his best when he lets his characters bray at each other from the heart, and at his weakest when he lets them, as he too often does here, become oral essayists.
For fans of Kushner, and fans of rigorously intellectual theater, this is still a must-see. Be prepared for an audience endurance test, and caffeinate if possible. It's worth it to see Lovejoy's, Henderson's, and Geiger's performances, and designer Christopher Barecca phenomenal set, alone. It's just unfortunate to see a work with this much potential and realize that there was no one forceful or objective enough to take a red pen to it while they still could.
The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures plays through June 29, pending any extensions. Get tickets here. And remember to get the 30 and under discount if you're 30 or under.