Before its world preem at the Guthrie, there was considerable anticipatory buzz about Tony Kushner’s “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures.” The three-act drama (running more than 3½ hours) is sprawling, yearning, and at times emotionally violent; it is also packed with a level of complexity, sophistication and understanding which indicate that, with further work, it could become an important new American play.
In fusing the thunderclaps of intense family life with the politics of labor (including the biological kind), the writer connects the mundane and the lofty with a wide scope, and an affectionate nod to naturalists such as Arthur Miller.
Marcantonio family patriarch Gus (Michael Cristofer) summons his three children and his sister to his Brooklyn brownstone. A seasoned longshoreman and ardent Marxist, Gus has one primary item on his agenda: gaining his brood’s assent to make good on his earlier suicide attempt.
The Marcantonio clan spends a good deal of time shouting, across the room and into one another’s faces. The most chagrined is working-class son Vito (Ron Menzel, lending pained sensitivity), though labor-lawyer daughter Empty (Linda Emond) and failed academic Pill (Stephen Spinella) are similarly troubled by the announcement.
Sitting quietly is Gus’ sister Bennie (Kathleen Chalfant), a former nun-turned-Maoist, who dispenses gnomic one-liners and serves as one of several moral centers to the work. (Empty later shouts at her to stop talking like Yoda; we hear Kushner’s inner critic having a laugh.) In the early going, Bennie signals how ambiguous matters are going to become.
There’s a great deal for these people to work out, and there are lulls of peace amid the turmoil. “Intelligent Homosexual” surprises, though, in its resolute pragmatism: The action is all naturalistic, with long scenes that play out as family drama, roaring emotion clashing with decades of unspoken resentment; the feints, parries and misdirection of contemporary communication are rendered in lavish detail.
It’s an understatement to say Kushner is working at a high level of intensity: Every passion in these characters’ lives is a contradiction, each pleasure arriving with thorny conditions.
Kushner’s great themes are here: change, work and the understanding that every element of life shifts when held up at a slightly different angle.
Mark Wendland’s set slides and moves, with detail to underpin the action (Gus’ old hardcover books are stacked high in the dining room, the old autodidact having taken to translating Latin to fill his inner void).
Director Michael Greif’s cast (a number of them veterans of previous Kushner productions) brings subtlety to the text, as well as ample ability to ratchet up the emotions.
Performed by lesser talents, the work might seem like a mess. But this premiere production (the centerpiece of the Guthrie’s Kushner Celebration) smoothes over some current shortcomings and uncovers the drama’s restlessness, as Kushner and his characters strive to work through the circles of the play’s mad but hauntingly real complexities.
Opening night was postponed a week, with Kushner reportedly rewriting down to the wire, and early previews had pushed past the four-hour mark — all of which fueled pre-opening curiosity about the play’s scope and ambitions.
Ultimately, Kushner leaves himself open to charges of overreaching and lack of focus. But that’s to be expected when aiming for this kind of scope.