THE INTELLIGENT HOMOSEXUAL’S GUIDE TO CAPITALISM AND SOCIALISM WITH A KEY TO THE SCRIPTURES by Tony Kushner (Shaw Festival). At the Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake. Runs in rep to October 10. $35-$90. 1-800-511-7429, shawfest.com. Rating: NNNN
If you’ve seen Angels In America, you know that Tony Kushner is an amazing theatrical juggler, able to weave disparate topics into a play that makes you both think and feel deeply.
His 2009 script The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide To Capitalism And Socialism With A Key To The Scriptures is just as rich in what it covers: religion, historic movements, Communism, queer lives, family dynamics and suicide. If not as powerful as Angels – one of the most important pieces of drama of the past 50 years – it still packs a punch. Its four hours race by like the wind in director Eda Holmes’s Shaw Festival production.
It’s 2007, and Gus Marcantonio (Jim Mezon), a life-long Communist and labour organizer who tried to commit suicide a year before, informs his sister, Clio (Fiona Reid), a former nun and Maoist who doesn’t want to get too embroiled in family politics, that he again intends to do himself in. She informs his three kids, Pill (Steven Sutcliffe), Empty (Kelli Fox) and Vito (Gray Powell), who converge on the family’s Brooklyn brownstone.
Pill is married to Paul (Andre Sills) but fixated on Eli (Ben Sanders), a hustler. Empty’s (short for Maria Teresa) partner is Maeve (Diana Donnelly), who’s soon to have their child the sperm was supplied by Vito, married to the peacemaking Sooze (Jasmine Chen). Notwithstanding her new partner, Empty’s ex, Adam (Thom Marriott), lives in the brownstone’s basement and is close to Gus and, on occasion, Empty.
Then there’s that mysterious old suitcase discovered hidden in the wall of the family house and Gus’s unclear relationship with the younger Michelle (Julie Martell).
All the relationships become even more tightly troubled over the course of the play as family and friends argue – often in scenes of overlapping dialogue – about Gus’s suicidal intentions as they discuss labour laws, the Latin writer Horace, Italian immigrants, gay American history and the need for love.
If that sounds too intellectual, it’s not. Kushner has a strong sense of dialogue and knows exactly how to voice each character’s needs. There’s as much loving as fighting in the way this clan relates, and the fine Shaw ensemble creates the conflicted family with powerful theatrical strokes, defining them using different sorts of energy but equal passion.
At times, the discussion of American labour history and philosophies of various branches of Christianity, though relevant to the play, becomes dense. But Kushner keeps grounding the material in these people’s desires and feelings, so it’s easy to be concerned with them even if we’re not always sympathetic with what they’re doing and how they’re treating each other.
The two-hander scenes are arguably the most moving, some of them – like that between Pill and Eli, which parses Marxist theory while a seduction goes on – both smart and sexy. In the last act, Gus has a separate scene with each of his children, trying to express his love for them while they reveal their individual hurts in relation to their father.
But you won’t find a more finely staged scene than that at the end of the second act, when 10 characters engage in a huge argument, often all talking at once and at cross purposes. Holmes orchestrates it superbly, allowing one voice to rise above the maelstrom and be heard clearly before it sinks back into the chaos.
It’s a well-woven cacophony, like a gladiatorial match in which each contestant takes on everyone else at the same time.
Kushner throws into the final scene a five-minute tale that’s so engaging that it could be expanded into a separate play. That tale isn’t a throwaway gesture but a sign of the writer’s extraordinary skill, one that’s as sure as the disquieting feeling you’re left with after witnessing the show’s cliffhanger ending.