The collisions of ideas and recriminations that highlight the first two acts of Tony Kushner’s Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide, multiple conversations/arguments taking place in the Brooklyn brownstone of Gus Marcantonio, are by turns invigorating and exhausting. Whereas OTC is fond of referring to the overlapping dialog in the second act of Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County as the “fugue of dysfunction,” in Kushner’s work there is no delicate counterpoint, but rather Ivesian clangor—albeit modulated deftly by director John Vreeke.
The house of Marcantonio (Gus’s three children, his sister, an ex-son-in-law, two same-sex partners, and a baby on the way) is replete with people of higher learning and the word: a former nurse, a lawyer, two theology Ph.D.’s, a historian ABD. As for Gus (the firm Tom Wiggin), he’s a mere autodidact, a retired longshoreman and radical labor organizer who taught himself Latin and translates Horace for recreation. It’s not surprising (and yet it’s very funny) when the two theologians bicker over a translation when one of them is going into labor.
Yet there is a hollowness in Gus’s soul (made perhaps too explicit by a subplot involving something hidden behind a broken plaster wall) that he can’t fill, a compromise made earlier in his life that he still regrets. And so he makes plans to make his quietus, to distribute his estate, thereby throwing his family into a tizzy.
A subplot centered on Gus’s son PierLuigi (known as “Pill”) explores the commodification of sex and some aspects of labor’s alienation that Karl Marx chose not to discuss. The love triangle involving Pill’s husband Paul and the weedy hustler Eli feels a bit labored, but is redeemed when Eli appears in the closing moments of the play to solve a problem for Gus.
In all this wordy maelstrom, the standouts are two women of quiet power: Jenifer Belle Deal as Shelle, a dockworker’s widow who matter-of-factly explains to Gus how a home suicide can be accomplished, and Rena Cherry Brown as Gus’s sister Clio (called “Zeeko”), a polytheist who left the convent to follow Mao and Mary Baker Eddy. Brown is at her most eloquent sitting calmly, with crossed arms, speaking when it is meet to speak.
Mashups of high-minded intellection and simple, sublime pleasures drive much of the humor in this piece. The payoff for one of Gus’s stories about the old country concerns an anarcho-communist choral society. Kushner swings from the nigglingly precise (as projections tell us, the play takes place in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood, in 2007, on such-and-such dates and at such-and-such times) to the sweepingly allegorical, as in Gus’s dream of the tragedians and the single audience member. The point of Gus’s parable is that the the tragedy takes place in the mind of the viewer. And so, as we watch Kushner’s play, we ask ourselves, where does this story of betrayal and collapse take place? There on the stage, or within each one of us?
- The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, by Tony Kushner, directed by John Vreeke, Theater J, Washington