The title alone of The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures is an indication that playwright Tony Kushner’s latest play at Berkeley Repertory Theatre covers a lot of ground. (Kushner recommends the nickname iHo, coined by his husband.) Its running time of nearly four hours might also be a tip-off.
Kushner has been tinkering with this play since its premiere at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater, in 2009, and its 2011 New York Public Theater production on through this, its West Coast premiere at the Rep, and it’s easy to see why. Ideas swirl in a dizzying barrage, overlapping and colliding like the conversations of the family at the play’s center, whose habitual style is to talk loudly over one another at all times. None of them would ever consider pausing during a tirade just because three siblings are also delivering speeches at the moment. This cacophony renders much of what anyone has to say incomprehensible, but don’t worry, they’ll say more. Much more.
It’s almost a shame that Nina Raine’s Tribes has just closed on the Rep’s Thrust Stage, because having two hyper-intellectual families hollering at each other in both of the company’s theaters at the same time would have been fascinating. In The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide, Gus Marcantonio, a 72-year-old retired longshoreman and labor leader, has decided to commit suicide, claiming to have Alzheimer’s and to be just plain tired of life. His large and dysfunctional Italian-American Communist family has assembled to try to talk him out of it, or maybe just to wear him down through constant argument. Of course, all that squabbling seems just as likely to reinvigorate him, because as played by Breaking Bad’s Mark Margolis with world-weary stubbornness, Gus seems like the kind of guy who thrives on conflict.
His three kids are a labor historian, an ex-doctor turned labor lawyer, and a building contractor. Two of them have same-sex partners, both of whom are theologians, and almost everybody in the family has been screwing around on the side.
Eldest son Pill (a quietly conflicted Lou Liberatore) is carrying on a high-maintenance love affair with Eli, a young hustler who gets turned on by talking about Marxism. Pill’s been spending all his sister’s money paying for sex, although neither he nor his lover is sure how much of their relationship really is just a transaction and how much is role-playing hustler and john for the excitement of it. As played by Jordan Geiger, Eli comes off as too much of a needy and callow twerp to sustain a subplot about whether Pill can bear to give him up.
Pill’s husband, Paul, has no patience for this nonsense whatsoever. We first meet Paul in an extended rant as he tells off Pill and his family, in the process providing exposition as to who everyone is. Tyrone Mitchell Henderson lays into these tirades with a satisfyingly snarky contempt that can’t help but give the listener a vicarious thrill because the dressing-down is so obviously well earned (in fact, his incredulous outrage is the only redeeming feature of this subplot), but we also never get to know Paul in any other mood.
Daughter Empty (a brassy Deirdre Lovejoy, exuding confidence), the labor lawyer, has a special connection with her dad and with her work, even if they have very different ideas about what kind of change is possible or worth pursuing. Her partner, Maeve (an endlessly chattering Liz Wisan), is having a baby courtesy of sperm donated by Empty’s younger brother Vito. Empty, short for Maria Teresa, isn’t particularly interested in the baby and isn’t paying much attention to Maeve, either.
Empty’s ex-husband and occasional lover, Adam (a wryly funny Anthony Fusco), lives in Gus’ basement and his helping the old man sell the family home before he checks out. This is infuriating to Vito (a volatile Joseph J. Parks), the resentful youngest son, who feels discounted and excluded.
Vito’s wife, Sooze, is seldom seen and barely introduced, but as blithely played by Tina Chilip, she has a refreshing willingness to laugh at the family’s ridiculousness, especially when you’d think she’d be the most enraged by it. Gus’ sister Clio (a deadpan, impassive Randy Danson) is more inscrutable. A former nun and Maoist, Clio maintains unflappable equanimity through all the carrying on. “You’re so quiet it’s easy to forget you’re there,” Vito tells her after spilling some secrets in front of her. A few of the characters are introduced so late in the play that it’s a surprise that they show up at all. Among these is Shelle (Robynn Rodriguez), a no-nonsense widow whom Gus has enlisted to help with his suicide plan.
Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone’s staging keeps the energy high enough that the play doesn’t seem as long as it is. This is the eighth collaboration between the two Tonys (starting in the 1980s with the premiere of Angels in America), and Taccone’s affinity for Kushner’s rich language and humor is palpable. That said, there were some hiccups on opening night, including occasional stumbled lines and pacing issues. Most notably, Alexander V. Nichols’ lighting design went haywire during a critical, intimate scene. The actors, only a little thrown, powered through the distracting lighting shifts admirably.
With lots of moving parts emerging from the black emptiness of the background, Christopher Barecca’s set conjures a superbly detailed and cluttered Brooklyn brownstone, lined floor to ceiling with bookshelves.
Kushner is an unbelievably eloquent writer—and when I say “unbelievably,” I mean it: some suspension of disbelief is necessary to accept the beautifully formulated sentences that fly out of people’s mouths. The dialogue is often hilarious, which certainly helps move things along. At the same time, the play is a mess— albeit an immense, often glorious one. The various character subplots don’t really go anywhere, and it’s unclear why many of the conversations are even happening.
As for the story, well, I’d say there isn’t one. There are a lot of plot elements thrown into the mix: the “to be or not to be” dilemma, the love triangles, the baby, even a mysterious suitcase. But there isn’t a dramatic arc so much as a jumble of threads that just keep going until they’re cut off. The play is more of a character portrait of this marvelously, maddeningly colorful family, and on that level it’s often gripping. Some of the moments of connection between the characters are wonderful, and these quiet patches are almost always much more affecting than the big dramatic incidents.
Ultimately The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide is big and messy and goes on and on in all sorts of directions, with nothing so satisfying as a conclusion in sight. One might say it’s like life, perhaps, but it’s more like spending a long, exhausting weekend with some maddening yet entertaining distant relations. You’re glad to be there — and just as glad to go home by the end.
The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures runs through June 29, 2014 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit berkeleyrep.org.
All photos courtesy of kevinberne.com.