THEATER | Kushner’s “Intelligent Homosexual”: Boy, is he ever!

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When circumstances compelled me to postpone seeing The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures until a week after the other press had seen it, I assumed the play would be old news by the time I got around to reviewing it. As it happened, however, this past week saw a brouhaha in which Kushner dis-invited members of the national press from reviewing the show, a reversal that some say was poorly handled. So there I was, walking into a play that the New York Times was being kept out of. I could have taken this as a slight—what, is the Daily Planet not a national news source?—but I decided to swallow my pride and see the show. I’m glad I did.

The play, a world premiere (or is it only a preview? make up your mind, Tony) that is the centerpiece of the Guthrie’s Everything Kushner celebration, acquits itself well even in the company of the Kushner classics playing alongside it. (Specifically: Caroline, or Change and the short plays featured in Tiny Kushner.) It’s a dizzyingly ambitious epic that sprawls across three long acts, and even if it sags a little here and drags a little there, under the direction of Michael Greif it coheres well and exercises a real pull, especially in a few key scenes. What’s more, it’s often quite funny.

the intelligent homosexual’s guide to capitalism and socialism with a key to the scriptures, presented through june 28 at the guthrie theater, 818 s. 2nd st., minneapolis. for tickets ($29-$60) and information, see guthrietheater.org.

The plot concerns retired longshoreman Gus (Michael Cristofer) and his three adult children (Linda Emond, Ron Menzel, Stephen Spinella), who have gathered at the family home with their past and present partners to dissuade Gus from taking his own life. Gus claims he’s experiencing the onset of Alzheimer’s, and he’s found a generous buyer to purchase the home, leaving his children a comfortable legacy. Over the course of a few days, the family hashes out its past as the children simultaneously struggle with here-and-now relationship issues. The situation is complicated by the fact that the children’s relationships happen to have intersected. By the end, you feel like you’ve seen Patrick Marber’s Closer, doubled down.

Those who saw Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance on the same stage—the McGuire Proscenium—earlier this year will feel an unmistakable sense of deja vu, not least because actress Charity Jones featured prominently in Delicate Balance and appears again here. While Kushner’s play seems on the surface to be more intellectually ambitious than Albee’s—all of Kushner’s characters have clearly defined views on socialism, religion, and the dialectic—by the end of Intelligent Homosexual, politics and ideology seem about as relevant to the characters’ lives as the country club dinner special is to Albee’s characters. Even sex, which is frequently discussed, doesn’t carry much weight as the family struggles with its future. All the characters seem to assume that infidelity is the norm; no one has much of an idea as to what they want in life, so how can they blame their partners for being similarly confused and grabbing temporary comfort? A man, a woman, some Tupperware…whatever’s handy.

The characters’ erudition often seems heavyhanded and artificial—I spent a decade in graduate school studying sociology, and never once did I encounter anyone who would discuss social theory in bed, or hear anyone refer to his or her dissertation as “the diss.” Nonetheless, the strong cast don’t let the torrent of dead-white-guy namedropping impede them from conveying their characters’ emotional struggles in a moving, accessible manner. Perhaps aided by the fact that Mark Wendland’s set cuts the huge stage up into a series of small boxes—action sometimes unfolds in multiple boxes simultaneously—each actor finds the right range for his or her character and sticks with it, neither hamming up the big lines (there are many) or erring in the opposite direction and underplaying. Cristofer stands confidently at the center of the ensemble, still agitated about the longshoremen’s strike he helped to organize decades ago yet unperturbed about his own impending death. Spinella is compulsively watchable—even if it’s hard to understand exactly what draws two passionate men to his nebbish of a character—and Emond’s weary acceptance of responsibility for her dysfunctional family will feel familiar to any oldest daughter. As Emond’s ex-husband now living in her father’s basement, Mark Benninghofen finds the sympathetic heart of a character who’s written relatively lightly.

The strongest performance, though, is by Michael Esper as the hustler with whom Spinella is infatuated. His scenes alone with Spinella aren’t the play’s showiest—that distinction goes to the fugue of frustration that ends the second act—but they’re at the play’s heart. Spinella should stay with his husband (Michael Potts), but he wants to run off with Esper. With desperate magnetism, Esper makes a strong case for letting the heart trump the head. And while Kushner struggles with contemporary slang (there’s some cringeworthy dialogue featuring text abbreviations), in the relationship between the Esper and Spinella characters Kushner completely nails the role of mobile phones in 21st-century love affairs: the way we hold our phones tight in our sweaty fists when waiting for calls that may or may not come, and the way text messages can bring a dozen people clambering into a bed that’s only big enough for two.

For a play that’s so often so much fun, Intelligent Homosexual is both satisfyingly substantive and darkly ambiguous. I saw the play with my aunt, who admitted as we drove away that she wasn’t quite sure what to make of it all. “I feel I’ve become more cultured,” she said, “but I’m just not sure exactly how.”

Jay Gabler (jay@tcdailyplanet.net) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.

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