Tony Kushner came this close to writing a great play with “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures,” his life-and-death drama about an aging union activist whose decision to commit suicide brings his entire family running home to Brooklyn to talk him out of it. The debates about the family’s left-wing politics are argued with intelligence and passion by the sterling ensemble cast helmed by Michael Greif. But by refusing to commit himself to a definitive motive for the old man’s decision, Kushner ultimately leaves his wonderful characters high and dry.
Although prevailing wisdom has it that politics is nowhere near as sexy as sex, Kushner works up plenty of thrills when Gus Marcantonio (a strong, noble performance from Michael Cristofer), a retired Brooklyn longshoreman and onetime communist union organizer, announces that he has decided to kill himself.
Once the announcement is made, the entire Marcantonio clan — descendants of the once-beloved, now unknown socialist politician Vito Marcantonio — shows up at the family brownstone in Carroll Gardens (an imposing beauty of an old wooden homestead in Mark Wendland’s multi-level set) to argue with the old man. And in defiance of all domestic drama tradition, every last one of them is interesting: Gus’ sagacious sister, Clio (dry, droll Brenda Wehle), onetime Carmelite nun and former Maoist; his intense and intelligent daughter, Empty (a fierce perf from Linda Emond), once a nurse, now a labor lawyer and still trying to heal everyone; his elder son, Pill (Stephen Spinella, as honest an actor as they make them), the intelligent homosexual of the title, who has brought all his personal baggage to this pow-wow; Gus’ younger son, V (soulful and vulnerable, as played by Steven Pasquale); and an entire complement of spouses, ex-spouses, and would-be spouses who are, believe it or not, all personally appealing and full of thoughtful (or outlandish) things to say for themselves.
We’re in fine company here — as fine as the family company in “August: Osage County” and with more substantial matters on their mind.
The Guthrie Theater has already had its whack at the Marcantonios by commissioning the play and claiming its premiere production. But these die-hard lefties should appeal to other resident theaters supporting big companies thirsting for juicy roles and meaty matter.
As paterfamilias, it’s only fair that Gus should claim center stage to defend his Communist activism and brag about his hard-won successes as an organizer for the longshoremen’s union. Cristofer does the old guy proud, grabbing his metaphorical mike and shouting over the meticulously choreographed cacophony of the family council.
But Gus’ hints of having Alzheimer’s are unpersuasive, and the rest of the family offer more credible explanations for the potential suicide when they bring up the painful issues of loneliness, boredom, and depression. Empty probably comes closest to the truth when she suggests that her father, who believes so passionately that man must work to live, is suffering because he lost his will to work. But only Pill, the humanist voice in this argument, seems to reach his father in a way that might actually make him change his mind.
The problem with the play is that Kushner lets all the theories about Gus’ motives — along with all the suggestions about how to save him from himself — hang in the air like live grenades. Any one of them is capable of causing the explosion this play needs to end on a satisfying note. But someone has to pull the pin on one of them. And if not the playwright, then who?