The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures by Tony Kushner now in its dazzling world premiere at the Guthrie Theater, is evolving into what may end up being the quintessential comedy of the aughts (’00s) about American family life. Set in Brooklyn, 2007, its timely inclusion and rich development of themes around around gay and straight siblings, lesbian insemination, contemporary suicide, the shelf life of monogamy, commodification of sex, and seemingly, how the disintegration of unions has negatively impacted the economy, personal identity, and the collapsing housing market, tap right into the jugular of our turbulent post-9/11zeitgeist.
Money is a driving force in the play’s complex web of relationships. Money creates and thwarts intimacy. Money shapes how we live and how we live out our lives. It sets the limits on the very choices society offers us and like it or not, we are subjects of society. Some would call us bourgeois subjects Capitalism is inherent and implicit in life’s most personally sacred decisions, even if you’re a communist. Few American plays have taken on deconstructing the intricate and insidious influence of money on individual ordinary people as this one has.
The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide began rehearsing just a few months before opening night, not yet a written script, but as an idea pregnant in Kushner’s mind. Commissioned by the Guthrie, rehearsals occurred in New York and Minneapolis, with the actors getting brand new pages right up until the Friday, May 22 opening. One thing that was developed early on and given to the actors was an extended history of the characters. They are what I think are fictional/kindred spiritual descendants of the aggressively progressive New York Congressman Vito Marcantonio.
The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide centers on a 75 year old American Communist and longshoreman, Gus Marcantonio (Michael Cristofer), who is considering suicide. His lesbian daughter and her partner, his gay son and his partner, and his hetero son and his wife have gathered round to see what’s up. Gus’s former nun and ex-Maoist sister, Benedicta (Kathleen Chalfant), nicknamed Bennie, has been looking in on him for awhile. Ditto the youngest son, whose mother, Gus’s wife, died giving birth to him over 30 years previously.
The gay son, Pier Luigi (Stephen Spinella), nicknamed Pill, has been teaching secondary school in Minneapolis where Paul (Michael Potts), his theologian partner of over two decades, has been teaching in GLBT studies at the University of Minnesota. Lesbian daughter, Maria Teresa (Linda Emond), nicknamed Empty, assumedly a variation on her initials M.T., is a labor lawyer and former nurse whose partner Maeve (Charity Jones) is pregnant from a sperm donor who just happens to be Gus’s youngest, the blue collar Vic aka Vinnie (Ron Menzel). Vic’s wife and mother to his children, Sooze Moon (Sun Mee Chomet), looks on this confused and confusing family with a practical sense of support and reality. Empty’s ex-husband, Adam (Mark Benninghoffen) actually lives in Gus’s brownstone basement where the play takes place. He still carries a torch for Empty and she still has an immutable psychological bond with him that propels the two into bed and emotional chaos from time to time.
Director Michael Greif’s cast rendered this newly minted script on opening night and two nights later, Sunday, May 24, the second night I saw it, with kinetically visceral vibrancy. By the Sunday night Cristofer had settled into his role and seemed to be finding his center of gravity in the midst of what has been written and directed as what looks to be a deliberate nod to Robert Altman whose films’ aesthetic is drenched with overlapping dialogue of multiple actions/interactions occuring at the same time. Since then I was informed that there are changes in the final scene. I also led a Talk About session at the Guthrie after the Saturday evening performance on May 23.
The play’s up front portrayal of long out gay men in stale longterm relationships at midlife and the frankness of Pill’s obsessive relationship with Eli (Michael Esper), a Yale-educated sex worker, not only crackle with passsionate intensity but they break new ground in content found in plays formatted in the more traditional family drama form. Think of comparable milstone plays like Death of a Salesman and A Raisin in the Sun and you have nothing remotely like this going on, though, Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide will likely ultimately end up being compared and classified as on a par with those works, contemporary critics’ grousing aside. But the real test is not the most famous critics or the most famous awards, but the test of time. And Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide with some revisions will certainly achieve that. Let’s not forget another group that has something to do with legacy: the scholars. And Kushner is relished and dissected by scholars worldwide. They’re gonna love this play, or at least love delving into it.
At any rate, the gay midlife aspect is in itself something not commonly seen in mainstream entertainment or the avant-garde for that matter. Pill and Paul haven’t had sex for a long while. However, it’s easy to understand why because Paul’s liberal approach to theology has ironically mutated into a kind of intolerance, or perhaps he is incapable of integrating that theological beauty into intimate relationship. Jim Wallis (God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It) fans would be wise to examine this. For you Wallis guys, this play is a must see. Frankly, if I myself felt stuck in a relationship with someone as judgemental and self-righteous as Paul, I would surely be looking outside the relationship to have my own needs met too. And here’s one problem I have with Kushner’s writing in this particular play: I don’t think he’s yet figured out how inexcusably overbearing Paul is. And this has nothing to do with Potts’s fine performance, it’s Kushner. He needs to dig deeper into this relationship. It’s crossed my mind that Kushner may be caving into racial correctness, albeit unconsciously. Legitimate complaints about racism among white gays, notwithstanding, there’s still overwhelming homophobia that is both grossly implicit and residual among certain African American Christian communities, not to mention the horrendous trail of homophobia walked by many African American Muslims. (There have been nasty verbal attacks lately by certain blacks who resent the comparison of interracial marriage to same sex marriage, even on such progressive Air America radio programs as On the Real with Chuck D.) Potts’s fine performance, in spite of Kushner’s lack of development in this area, reveals a man who on some level, for all his being out, sees sexuality as lesser than spirit. Here I am at odds with all the voices out there saying the play needs trimming. I say no, the play needs fleshing out in two places especially, this being one. Give Potts more life here. He has the chops to probe more complexity and that would serve the play better. (Note: nothing wrong with quips on masturbation, etc. but don’t let them derail the momentum and crucial information.)
The monogamy/fidelity issue also has a resonance now with the John and Elizabeth Edwards soap opera. What does a vital healthy person with a libido do when his spouse is no longer well enough to have sex with. Does he become a monk? One would hope that gay men of all people could be instructive and trailblazing regarding solving this conundrum. This is where I hope the Wallis crowd will use this play as a tool. What if theology and spirituality become not a physical illness, but a mental illness that fosters erotophobia? It raises an ethical question about the moral primacy of monogamy and sexual-romantic fidelity.
The rebellious love/libido relationship between Pill and Eli is beautifully developed however. Esper is fascinatingly enigmatic and he too, like Potts, is true to the text aw written so far. But I think the text here bravely plumbs uncharted emotional territory and that comes through how Spinella and Esper interact. Hustler Eli is driven by a compulsive need for money and a romantic obsession toward Pill. Even though Pill is older, more disheveled, and hardly the picture of middle aged suave and debonair that one might stereotypically expect of a hot young stud. Yet there’s a genuine mysterious psychic attraction between the two ingeniously evoked by the two actors. There’s real mystery here that you can feel coming from the stage, no matter what your sexual orientation. And it doesn’t have any feel whatsoever of Kushner fantasizing by pushing the idea of older men gone to seed with younger fitter men. It’s a credible reaffirmation that desire and attraction are mysterious and not always calculable in terms of age and looks. And so there’s no offense, Spinella is not only an attractive man, but few men decades younger than him have the sheer energy this very demanding role takes. But Pill is meant to be a mess of a man and not in control of his life and Spinella exudes this hilarioulsy and perceptively.
The other issue that Kushner needs to flesh out much more is that of the death of the American labor movement. There are significant cultural phenomenons that today’s American audiences automatically latch onto like 19th century western expansion, the Roaring ’20s, World War II, the white picket fence ’50s, Vietnam (at least from the US persepective), and even Watergate. (Some know the McCarthy Era but so many do not.) Indeed, the New Deal and the Great Depression have been recently recalibrated into American consciousness, with last fall’s financial collapse under Bush Two and the calls for the new President Obama to act more like FDR. That said, the emerging New Deal/Depression revisitation is in its infancy. Few Americans even know about the 1934 labor riots and police detentions that happened all over the country, even in the ultraconservative Jim Crow South, that shook the nation every bit as much as the 1960s antiwar protests regarding Vietnam. (White southern strikers were put in detention camps by Uncle Sam.)
And to my point about Gus: this would have been germaine to his identity as it was 1930s labor activism, a pre-McCarthy time in America, when it was not stigmatized so overarchingly to be a Communist. Whether you agree with the intentions of the Labor Movement of that time or not, it was a movement of a rigorous, if not daunting, intellectual dimension. Something that today’s Democratic Party only feebly approaches. And this is the kind of rigor that shaped the movement Gus comes out of. Sure, he would have only been a child in the ’30s but the Marcantonio family is certainly a product of that
One typically criticizes theater artists for not giving enough credit to their audiences. Here’s one of the rare times when the opposite may actually be true. Given that even an educated audience in this major city of the historically second bluest state (after Massachusetts) where the Communist Party and labor movements held sway in even isolated parts of Minnesota for stretches of time, you’d like to think that an inherent apprehension of labor’s American legacy would be in place. But that’s not the case. Nor is it the case among any comparable audience in America today. You have to give them background. And of course, it has to entertain and reinforce the play’s situations.
I suspect that the nights I saw the show that Kushner may have partially achieved some of that. For example, the scene in Act Two between Gus and Vic seems to have content pertinent to the labor legacy and how that has shaped Gus’s mind, heart, and hence, death wish. He seems to carry a terrible awareness about the tragic fall not only of communism but of the socialist dream. Tragically, this infects his communication with poor Vic who feels hammered on for not being intellectual and socialistic enough, though he’s the one sibling who works with his hands. (This play has some eloquent lines about working with one’s hands.) Kushner, as with Paul, could be more rigorously reflective about the intolerance of the Left here. For those of us who watched the late ’80s and ’90s as progressives, we must admit there were times when we had to wince because of unfair sweeping hurtful things said by progressive activists against those who didn’t measure up to certain progressive ideals. Black religious conservatives in Islam and Christianity have regularly denounced queerness and at times, cruelly. There was in fact, a strong antisex movement in feminism and in gay rights in the ’90s that was passive aggressive toward straight men who would likely have been allies of queers ironically. Like her or not, Camille Paglia, was a haunting ’90s presence for those on the Left who misjudged and derailed their ideals out of blind unthinking neurotic anger. The archives of local GAZE magazine and Lavender also attest to this. This may be one of the few areas which Kushner, who is without doubt a world class thinker, hasn’t fully scoped and reflected on. The Paul content hints at this. Remember, Catherine MacKinnon’s harsh antisex rhetoric was embraced by many feminists, gays, and blacks right here in Minneapolis where she taught at points during her heyday. Such cant infected the American Left and may have been helpful in paving the way for George W. Bush. God knows Rush Limbaugh and his ilk exploited the MacKInnon ethos to his benefit.
Unfortunately, the father son confrontation in Act Two was directed to be hollered and not spoken clearly. It was also overlapped with scenes between others that titillated with silly quips about masturbation and fish tacos, I believe is what I heard. Oddly enough, Kushner trivializes Kushner in this section. Regrettably, it’s this scene between daddy and youngest son that would likely have gone a long way to helping us understand why the dismantling of a political movement launched before the Cold War could make an adherent suicidal after the end of the Cold War. There’s also just that desire to see a father and a son be vulnerable to each other. But the scene has been directed in favor of Altmanesque effect to the detriment of what I suspect, ironically, was crucial content already in the script.
Perhaps Kushner, who would surely be aware ot the grass roots movements now in play around the Employee Free Choice Act and Single Payer Health Care, assumes that those movements are broadly understood and embraced, hence, the general public has the understandings his script inhabits and assumes. But the public does not. Nor would even that segment of the public that supports the Employee Free Choice Act and Single Payer necessarily automatically ‘get’ Gus. Sure, they might be closer to ‘getting’ him than others but we can’t assume they’ll be automatic in even that. Those two up and coming issues are still a long way off from becoming mainstream and templated as core American values. A culture that had come this distance already might not much need of the background I’m calling for, but that’s not the culture we live in. A fair and balanced culture where Thom Hartmann and Amy Goodman are as broadly watched as Lou Dobbs and Bill O’Reilly probably wouldn’t need that background. But that’s not the culture we live in.
Kushner also weaves in a thread about Gus’s interest in the Hellenistic Stoic philosophers revived in ancient Italy, land of his ancestors. This certainly works as a wonderfully existential supplement that would fasten the despair over the fall of communism and labor but it’s not enough of a reason to make us believe that Gus is suicidal. And as stated before the emotional depth and toll of the end of Gus’s political idealism needs plumbing.
Kushner sabotages himself on a smaller scale in Act Three in a touching scene between Pill and Empty wherein a line that is probably superb which says something to the effect of “you bought me desolation” is swiftly undercut by overly clever dialogue in another part of the stage. Not to mention, an opportunity lost to develop the brother-sister relationship.
Nitpicks: there’s a line early on where one could confuse Bennie as being Gus’s daughter.
The way Guarateed Annual Income is continually referred to as GAI gets annoying, confusing, and like inside baseball. Overuse of acronyms and initials isolate an audience and feel sterile and anti-sensuous. However, in the case of Paul sarcastically reducing Eli to a sexual stereotype by using online shorthand, the use is inspired.
There’s also an intriguing passage about views within early Bolshevism and Stalinism about homosexuality. Stalin had it outlawed. Previously, homosexuality was apparently accepted.
Communist totalitarianism in the USSR, Eastern Europe, and China is something too little known about but which would surely have been a sore spot with Pill. There’s a clear suggestion that Gus internalized some of this brand of homophobia and even used Ernst Rohm, the gay SS chief, as an example of perverse homosexuality against Pill. This is a significant suggestion indeed and would have been the source of great emotional pain for Pill. More inquiry here please. And as much as alot of glbt folks like to ignore it, there were many prominent Nazis who were bi and gay. Read Lothar Machtan. Also, there’s a reference made to prisons that is not followed up on either.
However, where The Intelligent Homosexual soars is in its ‘Key to the Scriptures’, that being Gus’s sister, Bennie. Kathleen Chalfant finds a tranquil place in your psyche and nestles there throughout. I found on opening night that I liked her very much but I couldn’t get her out of my mind the following day. Indeed, the woman emanates a spiritual power. This is after all the actress who played the Angel in Broadway’s Angels in America and who won the Drama Desk Award for her performance in Wit. Her turn as Bennie ranks as a truly great Guthrie performance and the play is worth a second viewing alone just to get inside her head. Anyone out there who is into spirituality, this is your gal. You’ve heard the expression about being the change you want to see in the world. Bennie as played by Chalfant manifests that.
That said, the entire ensemble is magnificent. Cristofer who actually won a Pulitzer and a Tony as a playwright in The Shadowbox in the ’70s is magnetic as Gus. When Pill honestly says he finds his dad hot, we understand why and appreciate Kushner’s daring in reminding us that children do sometimes find parents sexually attractive even if they’re not incest survivors. Menzel is poignant as Vic, a man who renovates buildings caught between the economic treadmill of our time and the strict ideals of his father. Chomet is charming as Asian American Sooze, bringing a sense of game and affection to her role, though Kushner might get his hands more around why he has the two male Italian American siblings with noncaucasian significant others. There’s surely nothing wrong with this choice; indeed, one wonders if it has something to do with their father having a more expansive politics than most other fathers.
Emond, who you will recognize as the mother in the marvelous film Across the Universe, is terrific as Empty. Jones is hilarious as her pregnant partner, Maeve. They’ve found this great acting moment where Maeve squats in pain while Empty hold her hands so that Maeve rocks a bit to alleviate the pain.
Benninghoffen is delightful as Empty’s madcap but sexy ex. He’s the ’07 white collar counterpoint to Vic’s ’07 blue collar. Esper’s Eli is electrifying as is Michelle O’Neill in a small but crucial role toward the end of the play that I dare not tell you any more about. Her performance, like Chalfant’s was one which I simply couldn’t get out of my mind.
The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures
Through June 28
Guthrie Theater, 818 So. Second St., Mpls.