BWW Reviews: Theatre J's Wild, Rollicking INTELLIGENT HOMOSEXUAL'S GUIDE
It's a given that whenever Tony Kushner touches down on the DC stage, it's a major cultural event. But the current production of The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures comes complete with quirks and brainy asides that can leave audiences miles behind, grasping for meaning. This being an epic affair, clocking in at over 3 ½ hours, eventually we simply give up and let the characters live their lives, untouched and untouchable. But that's when the magic starts.
Although Kushner has proven so masterful at creating intricate but solidly-constructed plots-and who can forget his work on the screenplay for Steven Spielberg's Lincoln-it would appear that he has ditched plot and lines of development completely. I get the impression that his research for Intelligent Homosexual's Guide consisted of reading James Joyce's impenetrable Finnegan's Wake while listening to a Mozart opera or two. Joyce's last novel is notorious for its idiosyncratic references to a bewildering variety of historic and contemporary phenomena (not too long ago, you could get tenure just trying to explain 20 pages of it), while Mozart popularized the trick of having his characters singing diverse lyrics and melodies simultaneously, constantly weaving around each other.
The premise for this exercise in madness is straightforward enough: Gus, a long-retired longshoreman, union organizer and unrepentant Communist, is contemplating suicide-ostensibly because his memory is starting to fail him, which he takes to be a sign of Alzheimer's. Over the course of the play, however, it becomes obvious that there are many other reasons why suicide might be a preferable option; the disintegration of Communism into consumerism, the disintegration of each of his children's lives into chaos and infidelity, and then there's that insanely high offer for his family home, a brownstone, a sum that even jaded DC audiences might find excessive. The prospect of leaving that much money to his kids, before the market tanks (the play is set in 2007) is a huge temptation. The dialogue is sprinkled liberally with Kushner's obsessions du jour; theology, Communism, G. B. Shaw, lesbian sex, artificial insemination, and drywall repair to name just a few.
Director John Vreeke has pulled off an incredible artistic feat, honing his ensemble into a small chamber orchestra because that is what Kushner requires; a cast capable of performing precision-timed simultaneous dialogues while pausing just long enough for a lone interjection to bring down the house with laughter. Tom Wiggin anchors the proceedings as a gruff, plainspoken patriarch Gus; in spite of his resolve to die soon, he ends up being the calm at the center of the storm that is his family. As his sister Zeeko, Rena Cherry Brown shares his sanguine attitude towards everyone else's troubles; in a typical move, Kushner gives Zeeko a biography that begins in a Carmelite convent, proceeds directly to the Shining Path, and we even see her leafing through the works of Mary Baker Eddy (whose book Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures gets a nod in the play's title). Ms. Brown, always a graceful presence, bears Zeeko's world-weariness lightly, and glows throughout.
The children are not necessarily given equal prominence, but there are some excellent performances here as well: Lou Liberatore is a standout as Pill, Gus's gay son, who is clearly at a crossroads in his personal life; his panic, mingled with his desire to keep his father alive, are positively riveting. As his husband Paul, Michael Anthony Williams provides an element of gravitas and conscience that is the Ying to Pill's Yang (Paul being a theology professor, perhaps this comes with the territory). Pill's sister Empty-the nicknames are based on their Italian names, by the way-is a chip off the old block, having followed her father Gus into labor advocacy as a lawyer, and Susan Rome nails this role, which is often the most compelling. Rounding out the house is Vic or "V", Gus's straight son and unlike everyone else an actual working man, whose drywall skills come in especially handy during the show. Tim Getman does a good job with a role that is somewhat underwritten, although his character's secrets make for some real complications.
There is, of course, collateral damage in the form of spouses and lovers, and perhaps the most memorable here are Josh Adams as Eli, a Hustler (and a Yalie) who is the apple of Pilll's eye and Lisa Hodsoll as Maeve, Empty's wife and the expectant mother of their first baby. (Now, there hangs a tall tale ...). James Whalen is an appropriately hunky Adam, Empty's ex-husband, and Jenifer Belle Deal gives a gentle and disturbing performance as Michelle, a widow who brings Gus his suicide kit.
Misha Kachman has created an appropriately surreal set, complete with a 2-story wall, with brick and windows, suspended over the stage and a distressed wall on which period films are projected. Jared Mezzocchi's montage of Cold War imagery, from pop stars to Stalin, helps to create the appropriate mixture of nostalgia and confusion that fits the script to a "t".
Given the fact that the dialogue is all over the map, it is tempting to say that Kushner is beginning to experiment with a new style he hasn't quite found yet. The play works brilliantly as a performance piece, and this ensemble is nearly perfect; but his decision to leave things up in the air (per Kachman's design) seems to indicate that he himself is on the cusp of something new. Normally I'm not one to kibitz, but one avenue he might try is to ditch his constant recourse to the crotch and its foibles as a plot device. Marital Infidelity and explicit references to various sex acts may get a rise out of some theatregoers, but frankly it's old hat. And as Gus himself says when Empty starts to talk dirty, you trivialize yourself when you do it.
Parental Advisory: The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide features mature, sexually intimate subject matter and brief episodes of nudity (discreetly staged) inappropriate for younger children.