Tony Kushner has written a compelling family drama with the misleading title “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.” While the play includes not one but three (and possibly four) intelligent homosexuals and lots of leftist scripture, “IntelHomo” is a political-family play in the tradition of Clifford Odets.
In fact, the play has many of the features of the classic social dramas of the 1930s and ‘40s. Most of the action is set in the dining room of a brownstone in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn in 2007. The house has been in the family for generations, earned and maintained by hard work and a vision of a better world to come. Currently it is owned and occupied by Gus, a now-retired, former longshoreman, union organizer, and ideologue. Gathered around this house’s dining room table are three generations of the family.
The central issue consuming the family is the 72-year old father’s intention to commit suicide after a failed attempt a year earlier (not to worry, that is not a spoiler; his intentions are revealed in the first few minutes of the play). In the tradition of Odets and the plays of the Group Theatre, Kushner uses this plot device to reveal complex and conflicted characters with strong belief systems that both inform and restrain their behaviors and life choices. Even the father’s contemplated self-destruction is rooted in his beliefs — his definition of “the self in the world, “or more accurately, his failure to subjugate self to the communal good, while he struggles to hold onto his communist affiliations in a world that has lost all hope for the enfranchisement of the worker as owner of the fruits of his labors.
The balance of the family includes Pill (all of the family members are referred to by nick-names), the middle-aged gay son, presumably the “Intelligent Homosexual” of the title, although his sister, Empty, also qualifies for that designation. She’s a lesbian labor lawyer whose partner, Maeve, is expecting a baby sired by Empty and Pill’s younger brother, V, an independent construction worker. Empty’s former husband, Adam, lives in the basement of the house, even though his practice as a real estate lawyer gives him considerable wealth. Completing the family circle are Clio, Gus’s sister who has traveled a rocky path in life ending up in a convent; Paul, Pill’s levelheaded and improbably permanent partner; and Sooze, V’s wife of Korean descent (and although referenced, we never see their children, the third generation around the table).
There is one additional character, Eli, who appears to have no place at the table. Eli is Pill’s young and very hot hustler-on-retainer and both Eli and Pill think their relationship has grown into something more compelling than sex-on-demand. Unfortunately, this subplot gets in the way of Kushner’s “family-at-the-table” conceit with several bedroom and street corner scenes that do little to embrace the play’s themes and style. Interestingly, Eli does make a very interesting connection between his occupation and the family’s socialist worker ethos: after all, what could be a more basic representation of a worker’s absolute ownership of his work than the actual selling of his body. But while Pill’s partner, Paul, has a place “at the table,” Eli is relegated to environments outside of the house, making the Pill/Eli relationship almost appear to be taking place in another play.
But this distraction does not destroy the intelligence of Kushner’s family drama. As in his other works, the play is full of detailed historical and socio-political issues. Most are given enough context that an average audience member can understand the issue and appreciate its importance. Kushner is always interested in capturing the various aspects of “the American ethos,” and in this play he contrasts hey-days of socialist activism against the eventual cooption of America’s middle-class. “Angry need with infinite possibility,” proclaims one character, “that’s capitalism.”
However, Kushner’s play is not a socio-political diatribe. Ideology and leftist belief are family values in Gus’s house. In the tradition of Odets, Kushner uses those values to reveal each character’s inner-self and the power that family ties exert over each member of that clan. In the course of the play’s almost four-hours, we come to see each character as a natural product of their family heritage and we experience their struggle to break free of the ties that bind the family together.
The timing of this production is particularly apt. In Gus, we have a look at the most radical of union leaders, one who actually is what the American-right continues to contend that all union workers are – Communist. So “IntelHomo” seems particularly relevant at a time when state governments have taken up the fight to bust unions. As dock worker, Gus fought for, and won, Guaranteed Annual Incomes for shipyard workers, but it is what he gave up in that fight that haunts him and his ideology. He is a tragic figure determined to come to a tragic ending.
At the center of the Public Theater’s production (in collaboration with Signature Theatre) is a moving and deceptively detailed performance by Michael Christopher as Gus, the broken bearer of the red flag. As Empty, Linda Emond emerges as the central figure struggling to hold the family together, which is both her strength and her weakness. She is the most conflicted character, although there’s plenty of competition for that title in this family; and she is also possibly strongest among the clan. Emond allows that strength and conflict to emerge quite naturally.
Stephen Spinella as Pill chooses a fairly stereotypical characterization of the gay intellectual unable to find himself. That’s unfortunate because it makes him appear to be less “of the family” and a “straighter” portrayal might have been more powerful and convincing. The balance of the cast is quite strong and Michael Greif’s direction is subtle but always focused, even in scenes where characters are speaking over each other just as real people do, but never in the theatre. Molly Price gives a particularly soulful performance late in the play as the woman who is helping Gus plan his suicide.
The spring play season in New York has been full of relevant plays. “Bengal Tiger” dissects the “meaning” of the Iraq war; “Book of Mormon” satirizes evangelical activism; and “Good People” explores classism in contemporary America. But Tony Kushner’s “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide” is the play that made me “awake and sing.”
[Note: These comments are based on the Public Theater production as April 23, 2011]