Sex, Death, Housing Merge in Kushner’s ‘Guide’: Jeremy Gerard

Steven Pasquale and Michael Cristofer in "The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures" in New York. The play, by Tony Kushner, is directed by Michael Greif. Photographer: Joan Marcus/Boneau/Bryan-Brown via Bloomberg

At three acts and nearly four hours long, Tony Kushner’s audacious family drama has actually grown since its premier last May at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. In depth, as well as in length. The former is good, the latter, not so.

“The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures” takes place early in the summer of 2007, mostly in a Brooklyn brownstone. Here lives Gus Marcantonio, a retired dock worker, organizer and unrepentant communist who currently devotes his time translating Horace from Latin.

Convinced he has Alzheimer’s, Gus has tried once to do himself in, with exceedingly messy results. Now he’s convened his family to “vote” on whether he may try again. He also announces that he’s sold the old homestead in order to leave them some cash.

The gathering is ripe for a clash of intergenerational themes -- sexuality, real estate, economics, theology -- as fraught as the title suggests. (It was suggested by “The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism” by Bernard Shaw, who knew a thing or two about long titles and longer plays.

$30,000 Trick

The Marcantonio clan is not given to consensus building. Son Pier, known as Pill, is a high-school history teacher and perennial doctoral candidate married to a black man but obsessed with a white hustler, upon whom he has lavished $30,000 schnorred from his sister, Maria Teresa, known as Empty. Their brother, Vin, is a working-class hero who counted on inheriting the house for his own growing family.

Empty is anticipating parenthood with her pregnant lover, Maeve; Vin is the sperm donor. Empty is also not averse to sleeping occasionally with Adam, her ex, conveniently holed up in Gus’s basement. Also living there is Gus’s sister, Clio, a former Carmelite nun who works with the poor in New Jersey.

The play is set in the parlor room (handsomely designed by Mark Wendland), with a couple of excursions to the hustler’s squalid apartment, where he and Pill debate the erotic versus economic powers of hard cash.

Kushner’s musical roots (he comes from a family of classical musicians) are evident in every scene. Confrontations are orchestrated to accent individual voices; the tone is by turns dark or giddy, compassionate or mean-spirited.

Verbal Crossfire

Director Michael Greif exploits those qualities in a production whose verbal crossfire frequently climaxes in noisy babble before returning to a simmering cauldron of wounded feelings, remembered betrayals and existential anguish.

A core of Kushner specialists are at work here, including Stephen Spinella as the maddeningly confused Pill and Linda Emond as the sexually flexible, rock-solid Empty. (I missed Kathleen Chalfant, the original Clio.) The ensemble works magnetically, the individual members pulling and repulsing each other as family members will.

Over the course of the play, Gus changes from saintly unionist believer to fallen idol. As Kushner’s Prospero with his own betrayals to reveal, Gus is played with molten sincerity by Michael Cristofer, who overlays his cockiness with almost palpable pathos.

“The best thing I ever did was also the worst thing I ever did,” he admits to Vin, placing us securely in Arthur Miller territory, where damaged children struggle to overcome their father’s secret failures of conscience.

Kushner, to his credit, lacks -- perhaps even renounces -- Miller’s moral certitude. The “Guide” ends on an ambivalent note, which is, I suppose, exactly as it should be.

Through June 12 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St. Information: +1-212-967-7555; Rating: ****

NB: Earlier this week, the trustees of the City University of New York -- once a proud hotbed of literary and social criticism -- voted to “shelve” an honorary doctorate for Kushner because of comments the playwright has made about Israel.

Kushner described the attack on him as “a grotesque caricature of my political beliefs” concerning Israel, of which he has been a critical but unwavering supporter. He was given no chance to respond. The vote was shameful.

What the Stars Mean:
****        Excellent
***         Very Good
**          Average
*           Not So Good
(No stars)  Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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