Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures

This play and especially this cast are completely brilliant. In fact, I'm downright in love with them. I like shows that make me feel ignorant but not stupid--ones that make me want to read, read, read to catch up. Or, in the case of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia revival now on Broadway, make me want to scour Wikipedia and then ask my husband to explain the math and science. The same is true for Tony Kushner's The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at the Public Theater. (How ridiculously long is that title? I think others are calling it iHo--iHo? really?--but for me it's iHomo.)

iHomo drops so many names of seminal works in political economy that I can't even remember them all in order to look them up. That's one reason it's so frustrating that the play isn't published yet (well, I can't find it on Amazon). The other is that there are often two or more conversations going on at the same time, with important things being said and not just throwaway lines for effect. Somehow, much of it is actually intelligible, and that is a miracle of timing on the actors' part. Still, when they all started shouting over each other toward the end, from my seat on the outer aisle I couldn't follow what was happening on the other side of the stage. Of course, that just gives me a happy excuse to go see it again.

Overlapping or interrupted dialogue often goes horribly, horribly wrong (e.g., almost every David Mamet production I've ever seen). But the dialogue in iHomo--and its perfectly timed delivery--is achingly real, even as the characters have conversations levels beyond what I've encountered anywhere but a pretentious coffee shop or college campus. All the talking, talking, talking and overanalyzing that bothers me in Kushner's Angels in America (and in Mamet's and Wendy Wasserstein's plays) feels so organic to this brilliant family. One moment I'd think no one really talks like that, throwing those ideas around in casual conversation at home, but every character is so nuanced that I couldn't help but believe that they are real people--real, devastatingly brilliant people. It helps that they threw in one everyman character (played well by Steven Pasquale, except for one outburst that rang false--but it's a measure of the cast's overall strength that that moment even stood out).

On the other hand, no conversation is casual for this family, even when they're not discussing the central problem to this play: The family has gathered for patriarch Gus (Michael Cristofer) to announce his decision to off himself because he thinks he has Alzheimer's. Gus's life work has been organizing labor (and laboring himself), but he's come to realize that his greatest achievement is also his biggest failure. I didn't know about the union compromise discussed in the play, but it was fascinating in light of the current union-busting fervor in this country. The timing of this play is perfect, and I hope it goes on to reach many more people because the lessons about family, work, and letting go are all so important and just beautifully, beautifully handled.

I could go on for days about the cast, which is excellent all around (the ex-husband, the everyman's wife, and the pregnant lesbian less so than the more major characters; but Molly Price is fantastic in her one scene). Cristofer is mesmerizing in a role stuffed with grandiose speeches that could so easily have been overblown. His interactions with the equally wonderful Linda Emond are the heart of the show, and her performance is completely heartbreaking without being maudlin. Brenda Wehle's understated portrayal of Gus's kooky sister makes what you find out about her past even more hilarious. Stephen Spinella is great, as always. His opening monologue is brilliantly delivered (a fun wink to a theater-loving audience that is sadly also completely overindulgent and kind of bratty on the playwright's part--it really should be cut from the play). And every moment between him and Michael Esper crackles with tension. Even when he's being a complete douche, he's still so lovable.

In my eyes, Esper can do no wrong. He and Frank Langella are really all I liked in Roundabout's underwhelming production of A Man for All Seasons, a play I really didn't connect with at all (I couldn't get through reading it either, though). And I'm a bit obsessed with his performance as Will in American Idiot. I've never seen anyone make a more compelling performance out of what was written as kind of a nothing role--he spends almost the entire show sitting on the couch silently, after all. (Even with Billie Joe Armstrong on stage as St. Jimmy, I spent most of my time watching Esper play a character that it seems he created from whole cloth to become the most well-developed character in the show.) I love his physicality in every role and how natural his character's nonscripted moments are, so fully realized with mannerisms and achingly human fidgeting. I will definitely go watch him in anything he does in the future. (And oh, how lovely it is to get to hear him sing again, even briefly!)

I'm so excited to see this again in June, at the end of the run (though I wish it would extend for months). I'm hoping that the minor characters feel a bit more fleshed out and up to the level of the leads. And I just can't wait to spend more time with this brilliant family and the ideas they discuss in their gorgeous home. (Oh, did I mention that they built a two-storey brownstone???)

And just to indulge my love for them, here's a photo of Esper and Spinella:

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