NEW YORK (AP) — Tony Kushner is not known for his brevity and some may complain that his new play is too long. Even the title — "The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures" — is too wordy.
Oh, but it's also lush and beautiful, funny and an education. It is poignant and smart, gloriously messy and wonderfully acted. And never, ever boring. You know what? Brevity is overrated.
In the play that opened Thursday at The Public Theater, Kushner uses a Brooklyn family to expose a place one is meant to avoid at polite cocktail parties: The battleground where politics and personal lives overlap and buckle.
The plot seems like something lifted from Eugene O'Neill or Arthur Miller: Set in 2007, Italian-American widower Gus Marcantonio has gathered his three adult children to discuss his decision to kill himself.
Played brilliantly by Michael Cristofer, the father is a hard-core Communist and former longshoreman who wants to sell the family brownstone, turn the proceeds over to his heirs, suck down dozens of prescription drugs and then pull a plastic bag over his head.
"I want to liquidate. And then vacate," he says.
This plan, not surprisingly, distresses the rest of his "Das Kapital"-quoting family: the oldest son PierLuigi (Stephen Spinella), a gay, lefty labor historian who is smitten by a male hustler despite being married; his daughter Maria Teresa (Linda Emond), a lefty labor lawyer; Aunt Clio (Brenda Wehle), a former nun who is now a Maoist ("I'm most at home in cults, the grimmer and more obsessive the better"); and Vito (Steven Pasquale), a contractor who is the baby of the family and centrist enough to be considered reactionary by this family.
Gus' stubborn demand to die sets off a three-and-a-half hour operatic work — with arias for each sibling as they come to terms with their father's impending suicide — that covers everything from family legacies to sexuality to religion to bankrupt ideologies. His desire to end it all may not be all that it seems.
Kushner's usual touches are present and enhanced. The characters' dialogue often loudly overlaps, just as in real life. (At one point, all nine characters on stage talk out loud, an impressive if frustrating feat.) Obscure references to the Sixteenth Epistle of Horace and to Cataphatic theology are tossed about as if we were watching a Tom Stoppard play. He delves in faith, but this time the religion is Communism.
But some great lines are delivered. "What you call progress," Gus says at one point, challenging anyone who believes the world works in any way but strict Marxist dialectical materialism, "I call the prison rebuilding itself."
Michael Greif, who directed the recent off-Broadway revival of the playwright's "Angels in America" for the Signature Theatre Company, also helms this work, which is less sprawling and more intimate than "Angels."
What Kushner has nicknamed "iHo" — and takes its name from George Bernard Shaw's "The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism" — is a family drama of the first rate. The action unfolds chronologically and there are no dream sequences or time shifts. Greif manages to keep the focus on the characters, even though there's enough screaming to make "August: Osage County" look like a Saturday morning cartoon.
The beauty is watching the characters unspool, betraying their co-dependence on their father and always in the older man's terms. PierLuigi, nicknamed Pill, explains to his dad why he continues to betray his husband with a hooker: "Angry need meets infinite possibility. That's capitalism."
Maria Teresa, nicknamed "MT," studied to be a doctor in her youth but, after realizing that doctors are a member of the hated management class, became a nurse instead, then a labor lawyer. But she is now a socialist and so is slightly estranged from her father, who thinks socialism is a sham. "He loved the struggle more than me. He loves the struggle more than anything. Or anyone," she says sadly at one point.
The cast is aided by some smaller roles that often inject much-needed humor, including Danielle Skraastad as MT's pregnant, hyper-smart partner who adds new meaning to the concept of "labor," and Matt Servitto, as MT's ex-husband who still carries a torch for her and lives in the family's basement.
K. Todd Freeman is wonderful as Pill's husband Paul, who warns the siblings of their dad's "big ole cargo hook in your soul, pulling you back." And Michael Esper as Pill's hustler boyfriend is terribly sad as a childlike man trying to keep up and capture his jilting love.
A suicidal old Communist unhappy with the modern labor movement may seem like a dusty topic for a play. But in a weird — or is it prescient — twist, Kushner's play debuts in New York only a few months after labor activists in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states loudly protested efforts to curtail the right to collective bargaining. Does anyone need a smart guide?