Playwright Tony Kushner has been much in the news lately. A well-received revival of his award-winning Angels in America recently ended a much-extended run at the Signature Theatre Company in New York. And, more recently, there was the tempest in a teapot about awarding Kushner an honorary degree from John Jay College, part of the CUNY system. (Kushner was denied the degree, but the decision has since been reversed.)
Meanwhile, his latest play, The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, recently made its New York City debut at The Public Theatre. I'm a huge admirer of Kushner, and of Angels in America in particular, so I was eagerly anticipating this play, although it received mixed notices in its out-of-town tryout at the Guthrie in Minneapolis.
At first glance, The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide (or iHo for short) would seem to bear little resemblance with its more well-known forbear except for its extreme length. At the performance I attended, iHo clocked in at about three hours and 35 minutes. (Mr. Kushner needs to acquaint himself with the delete key.) But iHo also shares with Angels an overarching passion for intellectual and political discourse, although the result here is far less satisfying.
For iHo, Kushner has amassed a set of intensely passionate characters, gathered together for a common cause: to discuss and perhaps prevent their aging father from committing suicide. Along the way, we endure a lot of intense and high-decibel discussions about socialism, theology, family dynamics, homosexuality, and prostitution. Kushner clearly hopes to create some meaningful connections among the various narrative threads and sociological theses, but the resulting play, while dense and ambitious, is emotionally and intellectually unfulfilling. Too often, the characters seem more like mouthpieces for Kushner's socio-political musings than real people unto themselves.
That said, the production is worth seeing, if only for its dynamite cast, including Linda Emond as Empty (an annoyingly unsubtle name, derived from the character's initials, M.T.), the daughter who strives the longest and hardest to persuade her father to live. Michael Cristofer, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright of The Shadow Box, as the central father figure, reveals himself here as an actor of great depth and subtlety. Kushner regular Stephen Spinella plays the son with a passionate addiction to rent boy Michael Esper, the latter of whom shows that he's a much more layered and persuasive a performer than American Idiot gave him a chance to demonstrate.
Based on the mixed reception that greeted iHo's bow at the Public, I can't imagine the show will move to Broadway. But it would seem very likely that we'll start to see regional productions of the play at some of the more adventurous theater companies around the country.