BWW Review: THE INTELLIGENT HOMOSEXUAL'S GUIDE..., Hampstead Theatre
It's not just the title (The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures) that's daunting in Tony Kushner's exhaustive three-and-a-half-hour epic, which tackles everything from socialist history, belief systems and family dysfunction to maternity strap-ons and meta jokes about cell phones at the theatre. It's such a barrage of polyphonic arguments and relentlessly destructive behaviour that one begins to develop a sneaking sympathy with the patriarch's desire for "self-delivery" AKA suicide. But, under Michael Boyd's sure hand, a strong cast delivers the meat of this hefty piece - for those who can stick with it.
Former longshoreman and Communist union activist Gus is joined by his adult children at the family Brooklyn brownstone when they discover his plan to sell the house and then take his own life - a solution which, of course, is driven by far more than practical economics. (The play is set in 2007, giving the market talk a certain gallows humour.)
Soon daughter Empty, who inherited her father's politics and became a labour lawyer, reignites their argument over sensible reforming versus principled revolution, while dealing with crises in her personal life: her lesbian partner has conceived a baby with Empty's brother V, and Empty is cheating on her with her ex-husband. Meanwhile, her other brother Pill is cheating on his husband with a rent boy, funded by a sizeable loan from Empty.
This is the kind of play where political discourse is foreplay and theological debate counts as small talk, while an entire series' worth of soap opera plots bubbles around the edges of passionate intellectual discussion. Ideas are intensely personal, founding and challenging relationships as much as the complex web of sexual and emotional ties. In the most amusing and electrifying scenes, that results in family members talking over one another at an almost incomprehensible rate, competing eddies of conversation swirling around the stage.
It can also feel rather self-conscious, as Kushner launches into an oration on Christian science, Marxist dialectic, Horace, Italian-American cultural identity, or George Bernard Shaw (shades of Arthur Miller and Chekhov, too). He barely masks the authorial voice by making nearly every character an intellectual in a useful field, so that it's lawyer Empty or one of the theology academics lecturing us, rather than the playwright - just. At best, rich ideas are weighted with real passion; at worst, we're yanked out of the drama to join yet another seminar.
The most effective arc is the disillusionment of Gus, despairing that his life's work has been for nothing, though a late revelation about his actions is somewhat buried. David Calder is both belligerent and vulnerable, self-assured and poignantly searching for meaning after losing faith in an unchanging world. He saddles his children with unreachable ideals and denies them autonomy, even as he longs to see them make a difference.
Tamsin Grieg is excellent as the sharp, caustic and conflicted Empty, agonising over losing her controlling father, as is Richard Clothier as the self-loathing Pill, Luke Newberry as the insightful millennial hustler and a scene-stealing Sara Kestelman as Zen aunt Clio, whose deadpan drawl is a wonderful contrast to the family's motor-mouthed bickering.
As contractor V, Lex Shrapnel is mainly called upon to be permanently furious and punch a hole in the set - that he does well - and there are good moments from the put-upon spouses: Sirine Saba's heavily pregnant and determinedly unfiltered theology student, and Katie Leung's gutsy wife. Tom Piper's effective revolving set lets us peer into the deconstructed dollhouse, alternately grand and claustrophobic in scope.
Not for the fainthearted (or those catching an early train), and more of a dramatised conversation between particularly erudite dinner party guests than consistently gripping or surprising theatre, but teeming with ideas and enlivened by excellent performances.
Picture credit: Manuel Harlan