Theater Commentary: Is a Five-Year-Old Tony Kushner Play Too Challenging For Boston?
The only Boston-based companies that have the means to stage an epic on this scale will shy away from the content while those adventurous enough to handle its iconoclasm lack the means.
The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With A Key to the Scriptures by Tony Kushner. Directed by John Vreeke. Presented by Theater J, in Washington, D.C., through December 21.
By Ian Thal
June 16, 2007, Brooklyn: The adult children of Gus Marcantonio (Tom Wiggin) have come home. The patriarch is a retired longshoreman, labor organizer, and card-carrying Communist. He is also autodidact whose interests extend from Marxist theory to classical literature (he is working on a translation of Horace’s Epistles). He has announced his plans to die. Thanks to the gentrification of what was once a working class neighborhood he has a buyer for the brownstone that has been in the family for four generations; he estimates that after taxes he can bequeath each of his three children at least half-a-million dollars. He has already made one failed suicide attempt. No one is convinced by Gus’s pathetic attempt to feign senile dementia – after all, he intends to commit suicide at this juncture in history because he (correctly) foresees a collapse of the housing bubble. Is it depression — or something else?
Audiences expecting a formulaic drama of a family dealing with a father’s descent into despair are going to be frustrated, to say the least. While not Brechtian in style, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures (playwright Tony Kushner frequently abbreviates as iHomo, or more recently, iHo) is epic in scope in that the Marcantonio family, its various in-laws, and significant others embody the history of the American left and the immigrant experience that tracks from exclusion to assimilation and then to hyphenation as ethnic and multi-ethnic Americans.
The eldest of Gus’ children is Pier Liugi (Lou Liberatore) better known as Pill, a high school history teacher and fiftish-year-old gay man married to Paul (Michael Anthony Williams), a theology professor. Pill has also been having an affair with a young WASPy hustler clad in tight black denim named Eli (Josh Adams.) His sister, Empty (Susan Rome) is a labor lawyer working to raise the federal minimum wage; her partner, Maeve (Lisa Hodsoll), is eight-months pregnant and a former student of Paul’s. Maeve’s sperm donor is the youngest of Gus’s children, Vic or V (Tim Getman). He is an independent contractor generally distanced from his family’s political commitments, even though he is named for their famous relative, the very real Vito Marcantonio who served in congress from 1935 to 1951, first as a left-wing Republican (New York State’s Republican party was a very different beast back then) and later as a member of the American Labor Party.
Living with Gus is his sister Clio (Rena Cherry Brown), an ex-Carmelite nun who, after a sojourn with the Maoist-influenced Puruvian guerrilla insurgency Sendero Luminoso (aka Shining Path), returned to Patterson, New Jersey to become a devotée of Mary Baker Eddy. Adam (James Whalen), Empty’s ex-husband and a real estate attorney who brokered Gus’s sale, rents an apartment in the basement.
The foibles of the Marcantonio family are as much political as they are personal. Gus remains a true believer in Communism and harps on his victories as a labor organizer. He won a guaranteed annual income for his fellow union members, which has enabled him not to show up at work for decades. In his eyes, this triumph has given him and his comrades a fair share of the wealth that their labor created. Ironically, the deal ended up accelerating the move towards automation and wage stagnation that has left subsequent generations of workers with less job security while the owners continue to make record profits. Pill’s interest in labor and communism is largely academic: it is a matter of documents and clashing theories (and just a bit of nostalgia). Empty’s work as an advocate within the legal and legislative system could be seen as giving workers more breathing room, but in Gus’ eyes her efforts simply legitimate the system. V, in the meantime, votes for Democrats but at bottom views union workers as parasites that take money away from independent businessmen like himself.
Though she is often silent, Clio reveals herself to be even more radical than Gus when it comes to embracing the cause of revolution. She is evasive when speaking about her time in the Andes: there is the suggestion that she might have done more than simply witness her comrades’ atrocities in the name of vigilante justice.
Meanwhile, the Marcantonio family’s admiration for real life relative is problematic: Pill, the history teacher, enthuses over his maverick status, but Eli counters that Vito’s opposition to FDR’s efforts to aid the U.K. during the Battle of Britain and support of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact amounted to support for Hitler.
While orthodox Marxists have long insisted that capitalism would collapse under the weight of its contradictions, Kushner notes that the system appears alive and well: economic exploitation has proved itself to be nothing if not adaptable. It is the liberal/radical alternative that has fractured badly. Socialism has been stigmatized because of those who have turned to violence and tyranny in its name, its followers also divided by an obsessive drive towards ideological purity that often causes its factions to make war on each other.
Though The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to The Scriptures does not proffer the angels, ghosts, and souls that fill out the dramatis personæ in Kusher’s other plays, the spiritual world is still very much present. Two theologians and the ex-nun engage in doctrinal disputes that counter the materialism of left-wing discourse: Paul is a proponent of systematic theology, while Maeve is a mystic. Meanwhile, Clio is a syncretic devotée of Mary Baker Eddy and Our Lady Of Sorrows, but these views on God are impossible to reconcile. Perhaps Kushner has moved away from what he reached for in his early plays — a God’s eye view of the cosmos.
Sexuality runs through the play’s political themes. Pill’s relationship with Eli is not merely one in which love, sex, and selfhood are paid for like any other commodity, but the very act of exchange arouses both of them: the commodity has been fetishized and the commodity is the fetish, or to use the vernacular: the sale is as much a turn-on as the sex act. Sperm turns out to be another commodity in the Marcantonio family, transformed by labor and capital into Maeve’s pregnancy.
Director John Vreeke is at the helm of an excellent production that boasts a strong cast of actors and crew of designers. In the central role of Gus, Wiggin embodies the stooped, bent-legged physicality of a former dockworker, a man who has retained his physical strength despite the wear of age and labor. The actor speaks in a raspy, rapid-fire delivery that betrays, despite claims to the contrary, the character’s sharp mind. Liberatore’s performance as Pill is masterful, maintaining a sympathetic profile even as his selfishness hurts those he loves, forcing other members of the family to put their own dreams on hold. Adams does a fine job of letting Eli’s intelligence shine through the stoned haze. Hodsell provides some memorable business with the prosthetic belly she wears as Maeve. Brown’s understated performance as Clio, the sarcastic aunt who might be undergoing a silent penance for war crimes, is intriguing.
Misha Kachman’s stage design is a cubist disintergration of the Marcantonio family’s brownstone. The door and windows of its front facade peer down on the stage from the heavens: in the distance, a big bookcase floats in space. During the scene changes, Jared Mezzocchi’s montages — made up of archival footage from the 20th-century’s labor and civil rights struggles as well as other rooms of the Marcantonio house — are projected on the cracked wall over the mantlepiece, where rests a bust of Gus’s namesake, Giuseppe Garibaldi. The set and projections suggest the ways in which the ideological left – whether one speaks of an intellectual vanguard, organized labor, or revolutionaries — has fragmented, its pieces battling against each other in the name of the most effective theory and praxis. There is no gravitational center to these reformist/radical intentions, nothing to bring the parts back together. As with Kushner’s script, we are only left with multiple perspectives, by which one might hypothesize that a transcendent truth exists, but it is inaccessible to the characters, the audience, and the playwright.
Sadly, Boston audiences are not likely to see The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures (which premiered in 2009) any time soon. Why is that? There is no question that the play would represent an epic undertaking for any theater here. (The Theater J production runs three hours and twenty minutes with two intermissions — a version shorter than previous productions at Minneapolis’s Guthrie and New York’s Public). But we also have to address the staid intellectual climate of metropolitan Boston, at least when it comes to our theater companies and what they think our audiences (and their box offices) can bear.
Washington, D.C. is a company town, the company being the government of the United States of America, but it is also a city that takes theater (and the arts) seriously in a way that, to my mind, Boston does not — the fact that IHO can receive a lengthy run in a major venue reflects that welcome state of affairs. The District’s industry is dedicated to transforming ideology into real-world policy, and so ideas have a place on local stages. Boston theater, by contrast, even when it does seek to do more than simply entertain, is about asserting the pieties of political correctness over challenging ideas.
Much of the political discourse in Boston theater is now dedicated to reinforcing a conventional and safely liberal line in identity politics — one in which class is just another part of identity and not the product of an economic system. How many of our companies would be comfortable presenting lesbians who sometimes enjoy sex with men? This is not how many lesbian activists would want their community, which has long been suspicious of bisexuality, to be seen. Pill’s attempt to turn his marriage (the play is set in 2007, when Massachusetts was one of the few states with marriage equality) into an intergenerational ménage-à-trois is just the sort of ‘immoral’ arrangement that anti-LGBTQ activists claim to be the pernicious “gay agenda” when they do their fundraising. The image of a ménage-à-trois is not something marriage equality proponents would favor because it runs against ideals of bourgeois normalcy. Sexual desire and political agreement do not make good bedfellows. To his credit, Kushner does not let his liberal political sentiments get in the way of laying bare the crimes of the left; neither does he let his commitment as a politically active gay man get in the way of laying bare the elemental anarchy of the libido.
I would love to be proven wrong (the sooner the better), but I expect that the only Boston-based companies that have the means to stage an epic on this scale will shy away from its content while those adventurous enough to handle Kushner’s iconoclasm lack the means. Still, I am throwing down the gauntlet.
Ian Thal is a playwright, performer and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. Two of his short plays appeared in theater festivals this past summer. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formally the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled From The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.