Tony Kushner’s “Intelligent Guide” at Theater J – my thoughts. ($1.16)

Last night, we saw Tony Kushner’s “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures” at Theater J.   I didn’t really know what to expect (although this is the fourth Kushner play I have seen:  “Angels in America”, “Homebody Kabul”, and “Caroline, or Change” being the others), except that I was concerned about any play that runs for 3 and 1/2 hours.  So let’s be clear at the beginning:  the length of the play was not a problem, it runs right along and takes you with it, and although you may feel many emotions as it goes on, neither restlessness nor boredom is among them.

As you would expect, this is a complicated play, with several intermingled themes.  It is, in many respects, and wordy and intellectual play.  And it has a significant number of characters of equal importance.  Unfortunately, the themes didn’t interest me, the intellectualism often went over my head, and none of the characters earned my sympathy.  Does that mean that I didn’t enjoy the play?  No.  That I didn’t appreciate the artistry that went into it?  No.  That had I had interest in play’s subject matter, I would have liked it that much better? Absolutely.

Now the good things:  First, it was beautifully acted, directed and staged.  Second, certain aspects of it were masterful – particularly those scenes which I would call (for no good reason, probably) tableaux scenes – where virtually the entire cast fills the stage, and there are three or four separate animated conversations going on, each with more than one character speaking (often loudly) at once.  You can’t follow any of the conversations without completely ignoring the others, but if you just watch the whole tableau, and let the words and emotions run over you, you can intuit exactly what is going on across the entire stage.  And third, when you can follow the conversations, you recognize Kushner as a master of dialogue (just as Joshua Harmon, playwright who wrote the recently seen “Bad Jews” is a master of dialogue).

Now, what I didn’t really care for:  First, the general theme.  Gus Marcantonio has decided (it seems) to commit suicide.  Now, he also decided this about a year ago, when he cut his wrist but didn’t succeed, and his three adult children mean to keep him from succeeding this time.  Gus is only 72, but things himself an old man, useless to the world, and ready to move on.  He is a retired longshoreman (in fact he retired years ago with a guaranteed income not dependent on continuing to work – an important fact), and a former (officially) and maybe current (unofficially) communist and revolutionary.  Two of his children are gay (not surprising, this is Kushner), Pill a male high school teacher currently living in Minneapolis, the other Empty, a female labor lawyer in Manhattan (Gus lives in the family brownstone where he was born, in Brooklyn).  The third son, V, who lives I think in Brooklyn, is married to a Korean woman (I assume she is Korean in every production and that it has something to do with Gus having been convicted of draft dodging during the Korean War), and is the non-intellectual of the family, a contractor, and the only one not a left-winger.

Pil is married to Paul, a theologian who does not believe in God and a college instructor.  Empty has a pregnant partner, Maeve, with whom her relationship seems to be on the outs, and an ex-husband Adam, with whom her relationship is not so much on the outs as it used to be and who lives in Gus’ basement apartment.  Pill (short for Pier Luigi) may be married to Paul, but he is also in love with a Yale educated New York gay hustler and prostitute named Eli.  And it turns out that Maeve’s baby-to-be’s father is in fact V, although not as had been assumed as a result of artificial insemination.  There are two more characters – Gus’ sister Clio (a former nun and groupie for Peru’s Maoist Sendero Luminosa) who has been staying with him since his attempt to destroy himself, and Michelle (the wife of one of his former young longshoreman buddies who committed suicide to escape his ALS), who volunteers to be Gus’ suicide coach this time around.  You can imagine some of the complexities.

So, the issues.  Of course, age and aging and mortality – although at a vigorous 72, Gus does not look ready to kick the bucket.  There are issues of family identity, parenting, and devotion to one’s parents. There are the political issues – the failure of communism, unionism, class solidarity, socialism and everything that smacks of liberalism.  There are issues of theology (I guess). There are issues of sex and relationship – the uncomfortable and unstable trio of Pill, Paul and Ely, the relationship between Empty (by the way, short for Maria Theresa) and Maeve which seems to be increasingly frayed, the relationship between V and Maeve (seemingly limited to one involvement), the relationship between Empty and Adam (what’s a little sex between ex-spouses).

And what didn’t I like at all?  The unpleasant sex and unnecessary foul language.  OK, again this is Kushner, but I for one am very tired of stereotyped gay men, having relationships with other gay men with which they seemingly have nothing in common, and where the relationship seems to be purely physical and angst-ridden.  Just like African-Americans were tired of seeing African-American actors in Superfly or Steppin Fetchit roles, if I were a gay man, I would be tired of seeing gay men presented in these tired old roles.  Perhaps they were fine for the 80s, when open gay promiscuity was a rather new thing and AIDS was a specter hanging over each relationship, but this ain’t the 80s anymore.  And what about Empty and Maeve?  They are openly and proudly lesbian, and are having a baby.  Yet they seem to want little to do with each other and each regresses to (apparently desired and enjoyable) heterosexuality – Empty with her former husband, and Maeve, with Empty’s younger brother.  Would Kushner have his male homosexuals have bisexual flings like this?  I can’t say that he wouldn’t, but I doubt that he would.

So I watched a competent play more than competently done, but when it was all over, it seemed to me that I could have stayed home and read a book.  Well, perhaps not exactly, but you know what I mean.

By the way, I do think back about what I remember about my other Kushner experiences.  “Angels in America” was fascinating and did catch the spirit of its time; I think of it now as an historical piece, worth watching in the same way as Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart”, an important period piece, but not one with current resonance.  “Homebody Kabul”, which I really enjoyed at the time (if you remember it, it started with a soliloquy of about an hour concerning a woman’s fascination with Afghanistan). And “Caroline, or Change”, about which I remember the least, but which I remember liking immensely).  So, I guess of all the Kushner plays, this one goes to the bottom of my list.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it.  But if you don’t, I guess that is all right too.

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