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In a Family Way

April 11, 2011

The Cast of IHO Photo: Joan Marcus 2011

Although it has one of those exceptionally long titles that begs the question, why would anyone do this to a play, Tony Kushner's latest The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures couldn't be more aptly named. The work (which I'm going to abbreviate as IHO from here on out) is currently receiving it's New York premiere at The Public Theater and I had the good fortune to see all 4 hours of it while in previews on Sunday night. The title is a double reference encapsulating both George Bernard Shaw's The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism he published in 1925 as well as the founding text of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy's Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. IHO is filled with characters who've spent their whole lives thinking about communism and theology and along with suicide spend much of the play engaged in humorous and lengthy debates on these topics. The title is appropriate not only for it's content, but also it's wordy format.

Stephen Spinella and Michael Esper Photo: Joan Marcus 2011

The evening opens splendidly with Pier Luigi "Pill" Marcantonio, asserting over the phone to his gay hustler lover that there is in fact theater in Minneapolis (IHO's world premiere took place there at The Guthrie) and that he and his husband, Paul, saw an excellent production there of Shaw's Major Barbara that was only marred when an insensitive audience member's phone went off at a crucial moment. And we're off. Pill has returned to his childhood home in Brooklyn to see his father, sister Maria Theresa "Empty", and brother Vito (or V for short). They, along with their partners and aunt Clio, have come to discuss their father Gus' renewed plan to commit suicide a year after a prior failed attempt that everyone is still reeling from. Gus, a former labor organizer and current card-carrying Communist, believes he has developed Alzheimer's disease and no longer wants to live. But IHO is no rehash of 'night Mother and the elaborate plot twists and philosophical debate that follow are some of the most engaging dialog you'll hear anywhere. This is due in part to Kushner's writing, but director Michael Greif keeps the dramatic focus tight and moving.

Michael Christofer and Linda Emond Photo: Joan Marcus 2011

There are subplots galore. Pill finds himself returning to his lover/hustler during the visit home again placing his marriage in jeopardy. Empty's wife, Maeve, who is a theologian like Paul, is pregnant with their first child, and Vito has his own crosses to bear with his wife and two children. There is so much more, but the plot of IHO is all about learning the secrets of these characters' past unfold so let's leave it to say things get a whole lot more complicated and interrelated before the night is over. Often the whole cast will be onstage taking part in huge free-wheeling arguments and debates. There's a lot to say and sometimes Kushner's is so overwhelmed with it all that he lets scenes play out concurrently with multiple characters all speaking at once over each other. The spirit of GBS hangs over IHO indeed when even at four hours there is so much to say and so little time to say it in.

There are many excellent Kushner's alumni in the cast and there isn't a weak link among any of the ensemble. You have your political theorists like Gus played by Michael Christofer and daughter Empty, the labor lawyer, played by Linda Emond. There are two theologians, Paul, a scene stealing K. Todd Freeman, and Maeve, the excellent Danielle Skraastad. Clio, who has done stints both as a nun and a Maoist rebel is played by Brenda Wehle. In the middle are Pill's hustler Eli, a charming Michael Esper, and Vito, Steven Pasquale. It's a cast that is clearly working together on every level and watching their craft is enjoyment enough in the play. It's also a splendid looking production that feels especially intimate despite its large cast.

All this being said, I'm not convinced that IHO is a great play. At times it does chatter on, and not all of the elaborate sub-plots seem to be necessary to the overarching storyline. Of course there are so many of those to choose from, it would be fair to argue that all of them have their own case for legitimacy. But I never felt they all worked together at the same time. Unlike Angels in America or even Homebody/Kabul Kushner has proven that he can create disparate strains and stories and unite them under the banner of a much greater project examining our lives or the feel of a particular cultural moment. And while this multi-generational family drama aspires to that, it sometimes seemed a little muddled to me as if straining to incorporate everything in it's grasp. And while it is also not Death of A Salesman, it does use a particular American family from just a few years ago to give us an update on where we're at now. So enjoy the language and the debate. IHO runs at The Public Theater through June 12 and will open on May 5.


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