Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Intelligent Homosexual... Kushner, part 3

Tony Kushner’s new play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, premiering at the Guthrie in Minneapolis and already booked for a Broadway run, confirms for me what I have long suspected about Kushner and aired in previous entries: he won’t commit to a plot. And because of that, his plays will never be masterpieces. Even the much-touted Angels in America suffers from this problem. There are many ideas in the play, many characters, and much spectacle, but without a central story and a central idea played out to its ultimate end, these plays don’t fulfill the real promise of theater. He’s no Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams, though the references to these two and others abound in the current play.

There is a premise here. Gus Marcantonio (played by Michael Cristofer), an atheist, communist patriarch, has declared his intention to commit suicide. He’s going to sell the brownstone in Carroll Gardens, give the proceeds to his children, and kill himself. He’s already tried once, a year before. His children and sister have assembled to, well, talk it over, maybe agree or maybe dissuade him, emote and argue and maybe get somewhere.

The children are promising characters, too. The daughter is a labor lawyer, not exactly following in her father’s footsteps but working on behalf of poor workers as her father did. One son is a homosexual, the homosexual of the title, married to a theologian who doesn’t believe in God but likes to think about God, and torn between his husband and a hustler named Eli he’s been involved with for years and given quite a bit of money. The other brother, Vino, is the only real “worker” in the family, the only one not an intellectual, though he’s plenty smart. He smashes things and fixes things and his father should be proud of him but… well, maybe he is. Who knows.

The sister, Benedicta Imaculata Marcantonio, was a discalced Carmelite, then a Buddhist, and now just lives with the poor in Patterson and tries to help. Which is to say, it's not at all hard to watch-- even at 3 1/2 hours, it's not at all slow.

But something with a strong premise, interesting charactrs, and conflict, played out in the Brownstone like a classic play in American theater, leads me to believe it will be about something, or resolve something, or commit to something. And I think it needs to do these things to be ultimately successful.

If there’s a common thread in the ideas here, it’s that there is one supreme value: it’s good to help the poor. And yet that in trying to help the poor in any real and organized way (religion, labor unions, communism, being nice to hustlers), one is likely to have to compromise and hurt some even as others are helped. I say this might be a central idea because it is the only connection I can make to a major element in the play: the discovery of the grandfather’s suitcase hidden in a wall. What is in the suitcase doesn’t help us make sense of the action, or affect the father’s decision about the suicide. The children don’t even get to know what is in the suitcase, as it seems forgotten as soon as it’s found, only revealed later. The contents suggest that the grandfather also cared about the plight of the poor, and was willing to do something extreme to try to help them, something morally ambiguous to say the least. This is a link to the father, who says “the best thing I ever did is also the worst thing I ever did.” He’s haunted (I think) by a deal he brokered that changed the face of labor but in the end benefited “the older” guys at the expense of the younger guys, many of whom lost their jobs a few years later. No “systems” seem to be helping the poor, even those designed to help them. Maybe like Pill, the homosexual at the center (maybe) of the drama, the bourgeois just can’t be expected to leave their good, solid husbands for true love with the poor. No one can be saved. Is that it? Is the father going to kill himself because he’s haunted by the harm done by his early victory? Are his children's efforts to save him guaranteed to be futile?

That might be it. Or it might as easily not. I can give you 10 interpretations or more, and back them up with evidence in the text, but they won’t answer what this play is lacking. There’s no arc, no defining moment, no chance of catharsis for any of us. Kushner doesn't even make good use of a suitcase found in the wall. For all their yelling at and over each other, the characters seem to go away unchanged. The final scene is baffling and raises more questions than it answers. Or maybe it’s just random, one possibility in a line of them.

“The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide…” of the title is also supposedly the name of Pill’s doctoral dissertation, begun in 1974 and still unfinished, because he keeps adding everything he knows to it. It’s stuffed full of ideas and quotations and intellectual stuff. His husband Paul has this advice, which I present as I remember it, since I don’t have access to a script: “You have a premise: the impact of the 1936 San Francisco miner’s strike. Every time you have an idea, ask yourself: ‘Did it happen in 1936? In San Francisco? Were miners involved?’ And if the answer to these questions is no, discard it and move on.”

Distraction and lack of focus don’t begin to explain what is going on in this play. At the same time, it was an enjoyable theater experience. It moved along. The acting was good and people yelled and talked to each other and even made some good speeches.

But at the end of the day, I paid really good attention, committed a lot of resources to this play, and it just didn’t hold together. The scenes between Pill and Eli were the strongest, as that relationship and it’s issues and philosophical/emotional/psychological underpinnings played out. The actor who played the hustler Eli, Michael Esper, was by far the best in the production. As the youngest brother Vito, Ron Menzel, as well as Stephen Spinella as older son Pill, also put in strong performances. The lead actress, Linda Emond as Maria Teresa (MT or Empty) was not as strong as I’d expect, and Kathleen Chalfant as Benedicta should have had much more presence than she did. But again, I’m not sure if this is their fault or the script’s. Both are t.v. actresses I recognized, and I wonder if it’s been awhile since they have had to do “larger” performances for the stage. Production notes say both previously premiered in productions of other Kushner works. Both performances were good, but overshadowed by the male actors on stage.

The press on this play suggests that Kushner was writing right up to the time the curtain went up-- a week later than originally scheduled. He wants people to think of it as a workshop, not a final piece. And so maybe some of the larger issues will work themselves out, and an arc of a story will become clear. But Kushner also doesn't seem to care about things like having a thesis or having "meaning" in his plays. So it might just stay the big old delightful mess it is, all the way to Broadway and beyond.

(I apologize for the length of these last two entries... I'll be back to regular blogging now!)

Other Kushner reviews in this blog:

Tiny Kushner

Caroline or Change

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