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Fall 2011

Mortals in America

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Wendy Lesser

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

by Tony Kushner.
The Public Theater, New York,
Spring 2011.



This play has gone out into the world under a misleading label. The faintly smirking title is an arch, knowing joke, with its obvious allusion to Shaw’s Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism and its blatant annunciation of the playwright’s sexual preferences. (On the cover of the Public Theater’s Playbill, the word HOMO appears on a line by itself, in bold sixty-point caps, as if to wave a red cape at any potential—but of course non-existent—gay-bashers in the audience.) Within the play, the title phrase is actually used as a joke, for it is the mock-title that one long-suffering character has given to his gay partner’s unfinished, probably unfinishable PhD dissertation, still in progress after nearly thirty years. But these two characters are not the whole play, by any means, and to award them possession of the title seems unfair to the rest of the characters, not to mention the expansive, inclusive script in which they all reside. It would have made as much sense to call it The Intelligent Longshoreman’s Guide… or The Intelligent Ex-Nun’s Guide… or The Intelligent Labor Lawyer’s Guide… It would have made more sense to call it A View from the Bridge or The Ideal Husband, except that these titles were already taken.

“It’s like a combination of Arthur Miller and Oscar Wilde,” complained one acquaintance of mine who left after the second act. This is a bad thing? Arthur Miller may be unfashionable these days, but Death of a Salesman remains one of the great twentieth-century plays about work, and family, and survival, and despair. And surely Oscar Wilde’s deep wit glitters on the page and stage as corrosively and beautifully as it ever did. To combine these two very different strands of English-language theater—one absolutely naturalistic and tragic, the other charmingly self-referential and comic—is an achievement of a very high order. To do so in a four-hour play that never once becomes boring, that has its own distinctive authorial voice, and that repeatedly transforms abstract philosophical positions into moving human situations is something that only Tony Kushner, among all our living playwrights, could have done.

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide is Kushner’s best play since Angels in America. It might even be better than that startling, groundbreaking work was, except now the surprise factor is gone: we know what Kushner can do with language and history and theatrical spectacle, and we have come to expect it of him, so he has to work harder than ever to capture us. Flashes of his technical and emotional brilliance appeared in the works of the intervening years—in the opening monologues of Slavs! and Homebody/Kabul, say, or in some of the family dialogues of Caroline, or Change—but nothing until now has had the sustained intelligence and depth of Angels. Yet the people who took Angels to their hearts will not necessarily like Intelligent Guide. Despite its many laugh-out-loud moments, the new play is filled with a despairing darkness that runs counter to the brave-new-world, inspirational energy of Angels in America. You will not feel inspired after an evening at Intelligent Guide, except to the extent that any serious, successful effort to tell the truth about reality—any clear perception of our human predicament, when shaped into art—is ultimately a kind of affirmation.

Intelligent Guide focuses on a single weekend in June 2007 in the life of Gus Marcantonio and his family. Gus, a seventy-two-year-old retired longshoreman and Communist-affiliated union activist, still lives in the Brooklyn brownstone that was acquired by his grandfather and inhabited by his parents, the family house where he raised his own three children. As his last name indicates, he is related to the leftwing Congressman from Harlem, Vito Marcantonio, an actual historical figure from the 1930s; Vito’s portrait, movie-star handsome, hangs prominently on the wall of Gus’s living room, and Gus’s youngest son (nicknamed V) has been named after their eminent relative. Now V and his two older siblings, Empty (short for Maria Theresa, or MT) and Pill (his full name is Pier Luigi), have gathered at the Carroll Gardens house together with their aunt Clio, Gus’s only sister, to discuss Gus’s threatened suicide. Around these central figures swirls a collection of partners and ex-partners: Pill’s African-American husband, Paul, a gay theologian who does not believe in God; Pill’s young lover, Eli, a professional hustler recently graduated from Yale; Empty’s lover, Maeve, a manic forty-year-old grad student who has been impregnated by V; Empty’s ex-husband, Adam, who dwells in Gus’s basement apartment like an infestation or a ghost; and V’s pretty Korean wife, Sooze, who tries to protect him from his overbearing family. (“Trap! TRAP!” she yells at V, gesturing toward Gus, when one of their arguments threatens to escalate uncontrollably.)

Gus’s suicide threat is not an idle one: he attempted to kill himself a year earlier, and only Adam’s last-minute intervention at the time and Clio’s watchful presence during the intervening months have prevented his death. Now, in what is almost a mockery of the community-minded, union-based procedures of a lifetime, he is submitting his suicide plans to a vote—or if not a vote, a consensus decision. The initial line-up in Act One is of course four against and one in favor. It is Gus’s task, in the course of the four-hour play, to break down the opposition and make them yield to him. He first argues that he has Alzheimer’s and wants to die for that reason, but this argument seems specious, coming as it does from such a highly articulate and logical man. His death-wish might also be traced to his loneliness, since he initially tried to kill himself on the anniversary of his wife’s death (which was also, as V woundedly points out, his youngest child’s birthday: she died in childbirth). But this too seems a suspect reason, since she’d been dead for well over two decades by that time.

To take care of her brother, Clio—a former nun turned radical activist—has temporarily moved into the family home from her tenement apartment in Paterson, New Jersey. (“I live with poor people,” she explains at one point. “I help them out. It achieves nothing. I thought it would, once.”) As embodied in a quietly terrific performance by Brenda Wehle, Clio represents the dry, skeptical sanity that lies on the far side of an insane zeal. Alone among these overly talkative family members, she is largely silent, an observer. “Do you think his speech is strange?” Empty asks her about Gus, trying to verify the Alzheimer’s theory. “I think all speech is strange,” responds Clio.

This is both an odd and a very pointed thing for a Tony Kushner character to say. Speech—extended speech, richly allusive speech, languorously poetic speech—is the lifeblood of his plays. Not for him the silences of a Beckett, the staccato rhythms of a Mamet. He requires linguistic room to spread out, and so do his characters; they display themselves through language, and this is true even of the figures who do not view themselves as particularly articulate, like V and Sooze. But in this play, that weight of speech is countered by something else: a reliance on speechless gesture, exchanged glances, delicate facial expressions, and broad physical movements as the key to another kind of truth. When Empty grips her head in mock-despair and shakes it from side to side, and Pill immediately echoes her gesture with his own hands and head, we learn something about their deep connection as siblings, their shared childhood in their father’s house. When Eli, confronted as the spoiler in a stand-off between Pill and Paul, looks down at his feet in silence, that says more about his pained embarrassment than any speech could have. And when Eli, at the very end of the play, starts to peek into the paper bag in which Gus is storing his suicide equipment, and Gus grabs the bag and holds it protectively against his chest, we don’t need any words to tell us what is happening in this scene. There are no words for what is happening: we are beyond the reach of language here.

Michael Greif’s insightful direction of the amazing ensemble cast, reinforced by Mark Wendland’s evocative sets and Kevin Adams’s glorious lighting, makes the most of the non-verbal element in this highly verbal play. Don’t just listen to what these people are saying; watch what they are doing, the stage picture repeatedly tells us. Often the characters speak over each other—not as in an Altman movie, but as in a Rossini or Donizetti opera, where all the soloists join together, combining their individual vocal lines into a single clamorous babble. This is lifelike (Italians, like Jews, tend to shout a lot at home, often drowning each other out), but it is also stagy in a very self-conscious way, designed to frustrate and intrigue in equal measure. If you block out all the background clamor, you can listen closely to any specific conversation you might choose to focus on. But if you do so, you will learn that—as at the opera—the characters are only saying what they always say, over and over; you would have learned just as much by focusing on the stage as a whole.

The play’s characteristic alternation between naturalism and staginess, between death-imbued sorrow and stirring beauty, pervades the visual elements as much as it does the language. Gus’s living room, where most of the action takes place, zooms forward and backward as needed, enveloping us in its reality and then disappearing like a fading family snapshot. His bedroom on the upper floor, visible only in Acts Two and Three, looks out on a Rear Window–like urban view; and at the start of Act Three, when a crucial encounter between Gus and Pill is about to take place there, that upper room, beautifully lit, comes toward us like a glowing set from Il Trittico. Eli’s stark bedroom, in contrast, looks like an Edward Hopper painting, with Venetian-blind slants of light cast on the wall. We are meant to notice all this and at the same time pay it no mind, for however beautiful it all is, the setting is just a background. The play is, in part, about the importance of material things—a house, a suitcase, a container of pills—but it also recognizes that in the end all such things drop away.

One of the most intense and chilling scenes in Intelligent Guide comes in the middle of Act Three, when Gus receives a visit from his friend Shelle, the widow of a former longshoreman who developed Lou Gehrig’s disease. Her husband killed himself according to a very particular set of instructions—and with a very particular collection of equipment—that Shelle is now passing along to Gus, to use if he chooses. The earthy straightforwardness of the character (whose spunky resignation and dour cheer come across in Molly Price’s fine performance) contrasts powerfully with the ghoulishness of her errand. As she outlines the method in detail, we listen in horror; so does Empty, who occasionally emits the resistant noises that are forbidden to us silent observers in the audience.

Why does Gus want to kill himself? The play gives us a number of suggestions, one of which is contained in a Horatian epistle that Gus, in his spare time, had earlier translated from Latin into English. In this poem, the otherwise normal protagonist worries his family and friends by his evident belief that life is just a play and he is its spectator. They attempt to cure him of this delusion, and then he says to them, “You want to cure me, but in fact, my friends, you’ve killed me. It was my dream that was keeping me alive.” Later in Intelligent Guide, toward the end of the second act, Horace’s theatrical metaphor reappears in a scene in which Gus slowly and rather frighteningly applauds while the rest of the family argues noisily. And then, in the third and final act, Gus explicitly refers back to the idea of a lost dream. He describes the vision that had always animated his own life—the sense that things could be changed, that a seemingly fixed system of privilege and power could be thrown off balance, broken, altered. “Now I see only what most people see, a fixed system,” he comments sadly. “I can’t see an agent, a class, capable of altering that system’s fixity.” So his alternatives, as he sees it, are limited to two options: “The future has no meaning, and I surrender to despair. Or, I refuse despair, and I refuse this mockery they’ve made of humanity. The only real death is to live meaninglessly.” And this, his solution, harks back to Horace as well, for suicide represents the one sure means of escape from the epistle’s prison.

As portrayed by the veteran actor Michael Cristofer (veteran, most recently, of a prominent role in Miller’s View from the Bridge), Gus is both a poet and a worker, someone who relies on the persuasive power of words but finally understands their limits. He is a man of intense feeling, and if those feelings seem largely self-centered now, that is because he is carrying not only his own weight but the weight of all the others he tried and failed to help. The richness of Cristofer’s delivery is perhaps enhanced by the fact that he himself is a playwright as well as an actor (The Shadow Box is his most famous play). Yet here, in this setting, he is the pawn of another speechmaker, trapped in a plot not of his own making—and that sensation of entrapment lends added pathos to Gus’s dilemma. Kushner means us to realize this, just as he means us to recognize certain members of the cast from his own longstanding family of actors. Stephen Spinella, whose line-readings as Pill are absolutely pitch-perfect, acted in Kushner’s very first play and went on to become the original Prior Walter in Angels in America. Pill’s black husband, Paul, is well-performed by K. Todd Freeman, who memorably played the nurse Belize twenty years ago in the Mark Taper production of Angels. And Linda Emond, who gives tremendous depth and strength to the character of Empty, was the soliloquizing Homebody in the New York premiere of Homebody/Kabul. You can absorb Intelligent Guide perfectly well without knowing any of this, but it adds to the play’s texture if you do. More importantly, such knowledge does not in any way detract from the emotional power of the play: we can be aware of these characters as actors and see them as human beings at the same time.

Certainly Intelligent Guide, more than any other Kushner play—with the possible exception of The Illusion, his early translation of Corneille—points to itself as a theatrical venture. It is filled with references to other plays, some implicit, others quite explicit. (I could have done without some of the more explicit ones, such as Adam’s worm-like taunt when he reveals himself as the secret buyer of Gus’s brownstone: “I’m the buyer! I bought the cherry orchard!”) And its dramatic structure, though it may seem loose and baggy to the uninitiated, is positively architectural by Kushner standards. For once, the playwright observes the classical or at least Chekhovian unities: a hole gets knocked in the living-room wall in Act One; a small, dusty suitcase is found inside the wall in Act Two; and by the end of Act Three, its long-hidden contents have been revealed and explained to us. Similarly, the four-to-one balance of opinion in Act One has exactly reversed itself by Act Three. As V says to his older sister when he prepares to leave the house for good: “Seems to me, the vote, it’s still four against one, but it’s switched now. The community has made up its mind. You’re the holdout, Empty.”

If this seems overly schematic, well, what could be more schematic than an old king who asks his three daughters how much they love him and then gives away his kingdom accordingly? I’m not saying that Tony Kushner is as good as Shakespeare. No one is. What I am saying is that good theater often seems artificial when compared to messy life, and that can be part of what makes it good. To my mind, the power of Intelligent Guide’s marvelous, unifying, tear-inducing third act is in no way diminished by its attention to form: the pleasure of seeing the plot work itself out and the pain of the manner in which it does so go hand in hand.

In Act Three, Gus meets with each of his children in turn, one to one, as each tries to argue him out of his suicidal position. With each encounter, a different kind of emotional closeness between aging parent and adult child is conveyed. Between Gus and Pill there is a certain cool historical perspective, an informed chattiness, not to mention a deep well of shared humor. (At one point they just burst helplessly into laughter.) But there are also moments of sudden and surprising intimacy, as when Gus says, “How strange that of my children you would be the wild, fearless one—the one who breaks things. I never saw before how much you were like me.”

With V (a difficult and somewhat opaque character, beautifully embodied by Steven Pasquale), there is a much greater verbal barrier between father and son; all the understanding goes on at a subterranean level, beneath the words. This becomes intensely painful at the moment when Gus tries to get V to leave the house, and V knows that if he does, his father will kill himself. Throughout this scene V is both angry and sad, allowing himself to be embraced by Gus and then pushing him away.

“I’m not going to kill myself. I’m telling you the truth,” Gus pleads with him, falsely—and V senses the falsehood.

“As true as that you love me?” V says, forcing his hand.

There is a long pause while Gus contemplates the hurtfulness of each kind of possible lie.

“As true as that I love you,” Gus finally says. And V weeps, because he knows that, although his father does love him, he is still planning to die.

Perhaps the most fraught encounter, and certainly the one in which we (and Kushner) have the most invested, comes between Gus and the sole holdout, Empty. He has always viewed her as the child of his heart; she has always seen him as her hero. He was a labor leader, she is a labor lawyer: their aims, she thinks, have always been the same. But now he is betraying her with his despair. He deplores mere endurance, causing her to ask, “What are any of us waiting for, if endurance is so stupid?” That is, why shouldn’t we all just kill ourselves now? It is a testimony to the power of Kushner’s imagination (or of his ambivalence, which is a big part of his imagination) that he lends equal force to both sides of the argument. He has given those strong, persuasive lines about the end of hope and the rejection of meaninglessness to the father, but now he gives the daughter a final say. “If you murder my father,” she says to Gus, “you will take with him the part of me that he kept for himself. And I will hate you forever. That’s what it costs.” And then she leaves, and we sense that he will indeed kill himself, even though it may happen after the final curtain falls.

Angels in America was a young man’s play—a funny, angry, wildly energetic young man who stood on the brink of a new episode in American history and, looking back on his country’s past, wondered what lay in store for him. The Tony Kushner behind Intelligent Guide is the same man grown older, sadder, less optimistic, more despairing. He still has his sense of humor. And he still has his great love for the actors and other collaborators who have given his stage pieces their vital existence. But he no longer believes that the written word—or indeed any word or action—can change history, ward off the inevitable, make a dent. All he can hope for is to tell the truth. So he does that, and it is enough.



Wendy Lesser is the editor of The Threepenny Review and the author, most recently, of Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets.
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