New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Ethnic Theater - Jewish

"The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures"
Public Theatre, Manhattan

Tony Kushner is seen as one of the most brilliant young American (make that Jewish-American) playwrights on the current scene. His “Angels in America” made theatrical history in 1992, forging ahead with a new vision and a new style. The play took numerous awards and catapulted Kushner into the limelight.

But Kushner is also seen as a controversial figure—at least in the Jewish world. His positions on Israeli-Palestinian relations have been viewed with alarm in some quarters. (He has criticized Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and the increasing religious extremism affecting the country’s politics. The Zionist Organization of America, for example, protested when Brandeis University chose to give Kushner an honorary degree.)

In any event, Kushner continues to forge ahead, using his considerable knowledge, as well as his own life experiences, to write his plays. His own homosexuality feeds into the mix, as does his considerable erudition and his Jewish heritage. (Kushner recently married Mark Harris, an “Entertainment Weekly” editor, in a ceremony officiated by Rabbi Ellen Lippmann.)

And now Kushner offers up his latest drama, on stage at the Public Theatre in Manhattan. The title is almost as long as the play itself, which runs just under four hours---“The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.”

What is the focus this time around? It’s a Kushner-style family play, with nothing (or nothing obvious) that calls upon Kushner’s Jewish background. There’s Gus Marcantonio, an old-time union organizer and longshoreman (who happens to be an erudite scholar focusing on the Roman Horace’s “Epistles”). Then there are Gus’s children—his gay son Pill, his Lesbian daughter Empty, and his straight youngest son V. Why these names—or nicknames? One more mystery in Kushner’s world of mysteries.

The play focuses on the particular, played out against the backdrop of world affairs and intellectual movements. Kushner has a particular skill in interweaving both. Here is the dysfunctional family, so familiar in today’s dramas. But their concerns go far beyond personal relationships and individual angsts. Gus Marcantonio is an unreformed Communist, still holding out for the People versus the Establishment. And his politics informs every exchange with his children. Others, too, in the family, are concerned with how they relate to the world and what good they can achieve.

The story? Gus, supposedly suffering from Alzheimer’s, has decided to kill himself. His children and his sister Clio react with varied emotions—despair, anger, love, acceptance. Family discussions range from lofty intellectual exchanges to rage-filled accusations.

Yet the play remains curiously detached---more an intellectual Kushner exercise than a drama of real people caught up in real life. Does one care what happens to any of these people—these repositories of Kushner ideas? Unfortunately not.

But, like all Kushner works, this play is rampant with ideas. And this particular production (which is co-produced by the Public Theatre with the Signature Theatre in association with the Guthrie Theatre) is first-rate, under Michael Grief’s astute direction. The stellar ensemble includes, alphabetically: Michael Cristofer, Linda Emond, Michael Esper, K. Todd Freeman, Hettienne Park, Steven Pasquale, Molly Price, Matt Servitto, Danielle Skraastad, Stephen Spinella, and Brenda Wehle).

Kushner could not ask for a better interpretation of his work. And we come away from the show, not devastated by emotion, but permeated with thoughts.

--Irene Backalenick
May 3, 2011

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