Midwest test for Kushner’s best

Guthrie Theater goes for array of scribe's work

The Tony Kushner Celebration at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater reps a supersized endeavor in a nonprofit legit landscape disposed to downsizing.

Among the three full productions of plays by Kushner — the “Angels in America” scribe whose work is not exactly known for its modesty of scope or running time — is the world preem of his latest, “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures,” which began perfs May 15. Also on the roster is an evening of short works, “Tiny Kushner,” which began May 16.

Along with a staging of Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s 2003 tuner “Caroline, or Change,” which opened April 24, there’s a crowded slate of Kushner-centric seminars, workshops and talks.

“It’s a huge enterprise for us,” says Guthrie a.d. Joe Dowling. He estimates the fest has added “a couple of million dollars” to the theater’s costs this season.

A long lead time for the event, two years in the planning, accounts for the seemingly inauspicious economic timing of the celebration, which takes place as many legit nonprofits have cut back on staffing and programming in the struggle to stay afloat.

For Kushner, “Intelligent Homosexual” — directed by Michael Greif (“Rent,” “Next to Normal”) and starring Kushner vets Stephen Spinella, Linda Emond and Kathleen Chalfant — also reps a creative risk, since he considers the work still in its initial stages of development.

“I’ve never presented a play in a full production that’s this early in its naissance,” says the scribe.

The Kushner celebration marks the latest step by the Guthrie to take a more prominent role on the national stage. Last summer, the soon-to-tour “Little House on the Prairie” tuner had its world preem there, and the upcoming season includes the first U.S. staging of “Brief Encounter,” the London hit adapted from Noel Coward’s script for the classic 1945 David Lean film.

“We have a very strong brand, and it felt to me that we had a particular role to play on the national level,” says Dowling, who considers the org — one of the oldest regional nonprofits in the country — a national center for theater and education.

The Guthrie got a significant profile boost three years ago when it unveiled a new theater that was the first Stateside project from French architect Jean Nouvel.

For Dowling, the new building’s three venues seemed primed for the programming of a concurrent slate of offerings organized around a single writer or theme. Kushner was the first playwright Dowling approached.

“He’s always right there in terms of the zeitgeist,” he says of the scribe’s unerringly topical subject matter. The playwright’s last major play, “Homebody/Kabul,” was built around a prescient fascination with Afghanistan and the Middle East; it bowed Off Broadway at New York Theater Workshop soon after 9/11.

Commissioned by the Guthrie, the new play takes its wordy title from George Bernard Shaw’s “The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism” and Mary Baker Eddy’s “Science and Health With a Key to the Scriptures.” With a plot centering on a family gathering at a Brooklyn brownstone in summer 2007, the play stirs up Kushner’s characteristically epic historical and philosophical themes.

A more thorough developmental process of private workshops at the Guthrie had been planned prior to the premiere of “Intelligent Homosexual,” but Hollywood got in the way; Kushner and Steven Spielberg’s long-aborning “Lincoln” project engulfed much of the writer’s time for the past couple of years.

“There was a plan for a certain kind of development, but that didn’t exactly happen because of ‘Lincoln,’ ” Kushner says. “I was much later in getting to the new play than I expected to be.”

Although he’s unaccustomed to putting up a new piece in such an early form, the scribe says he’s beginning to see benefits of the truncated process.

“I’ve taken some big risks in the play that I wouldn’t have otherwise,” he says.

Meanwhile, “Tiny Kushner,” helmed by Tony Taccone, has required much less hands-on work from the writer, since the five pieces included were all finished.

The lineup includes “Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy,” the publicity-attracting one-act that features Laura Bush reading to the ghosts of dead Iraqi children, along with a teleplay, a brief piece written for Juilliard and two works, never performed, that appeared in print.

Both “Intelligent Homosexual” and “Tiny Kushner” seem like natural candidates for eventual New York exposure. “Tiny Kushner” is already lined up for a run at Berkeley Rep, where Taccone is artistic director, and while “Intelligent Homosexual” has not nailed down its next step, a long list of New York producers is expected to be making trips to Minneapolis to check out the show.

According to Dowling, box office for the well-reviewed staging of “Caroline” has been very strong, with the event status of the entire celebration helping to drive interest.

“There’s been a lot of press surrounding the idea,” he says. “The whole is seen as more than the sum of its parts.”

As for weathering the economic downturn, Dowling says the Guthrie has declared its central lineup of legit offerings sacrosanct, with engagements of pre-existing productions — including “Brief Encounter” and regional fave “Ella” — helping to keep the slate robust. A key component of the Guthrie’s outlook is, for the moment, the refusal to come off as a struggling pauper.

“That’s the biggest turn-off for audiences and donors,” Dowling says.

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