Kushner’s latest play lives up to its title’s promises and more

iHo 1There is certainly a lot to write about Berkeley Rep’s production of Tony Kushner’s play The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. The title alone deserves its own post really, with its nods to both George Bernard Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism and Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, the central text for Christian Scientists, written by Mary Baker Eddy.

The play’s title as well as its running time indicate that there is indeed quite a lot going on. Yes, there are probably more than a dozen themes in iHo (the shortened title devised by Kushner’s husband, who probably got tired of saying all fourteen words whenever he had to refer to the play). But those themes are tightly woven, and Kushner’s writing never reaches beyond what he can gracefully tackle. The play deals with sibling rivalry, married love versus passionate desire, letting go, family dynamics, prostitution, money, labor, theology, real estate, politics, sexual identity, acceptance, grudges, ideals, communism, and responsibility—and all channeled through one family in Brooklyn.

Director Tony Taccone summed up Tony Kushner’s writing this way:

The world is far too complicated for any single person to comprehend. And yet, a small group of people seems to come astonishingly close. Mr. Kushner is one of those people. His capacity to describe the interrelationship of human thought and behavior within the shifting forces of social and economic upheaval is nothing short of astonishing.

Kushner’s writing is intelligent, layered, funny, and ultimately revealing. His characters are fully three-dimensional, and it’s truly an ensemble cast, each player representing a unique role in the drama that unfolds in the three and a half hours on stage. And significant chunks of dialogue are delivered at the same time: a conversation takes place outside the front door while an argument is in full swing inside. Even when they are all in the same room, they yell over each other the way families sometimes do. Yet it’s all carefully choreographed to ensure the audience gets the crucial pieces it needs to follow the plot.

The set was breathtaking. Rather than fill a few shelves with cardboard blocks painted to look like books, somebody actually gathered hundreds of real books. (I was sitting on the front row, so I could tell.) And the main setting—the interior of the brownstone’s living room—moved smoothly back to make room either for the young lover’s tiny studio apartment, an outdoor scene, or the second-story bedroom, which descended when an important father-son conversation needed to be center stage.

And the cast was wonderful. Led by talented Emmy-nominated Mark Margolis* who portrayed Gus, the life-long communist and patriarch of the Italian-American family, every actor on stage had his or her great moments in the play. From Gus’s sister, the ex-nun, to Pill’s handsome young lover to Empty’s ex-husband (who lived in his ex father-in-law’s basement), they all contributed to the rich tapestry of human interactions.

Tyrone Mitchell Henderson provided comic relief as Pill’s husband as did Liz Wisan as Empty’s pregnant partner, Maeve, and Tina Chilip as Sooze, the younger brother’s wife.

There may have been one or two slightly over-long speeches, but overall, the pace was brisk. I was engaged every moment and leaped to my feet for a standing ovation when the play ended. It was a marvelous piece of theater. Even if the name is so long, it’s hard to remember…

 

*the wordless old man in the wheelchair who blew up the Giancarlo Esposito character in Breaking Bad.

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