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Of all the plays about argumentative New York City liberals with advanced degrees that have blabbedy-blabbed across D.C.’s stages over the last couple of years (off the top of my head: half of Richard Nelson’s four Apple Family Plays, Amy Herzog’s 4,000 Miles, and Joshua Harmon’s still-running Bad Jews at Studio Theatre; Herzog’s less successful After the Revolution at Theater J), Tony Kushner’s (deep breath) The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures is unequivocally and beyond all doubt the longest.
Debuted at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater (which commissioned the play) in 2009, staged at the Public Theater in New York in 2011, and updated, says Theater J, for this latest iteration—which, including the two brief intermissions, will extract 3.5 hours of your life—this is the sort of intermittently moving but more often pedantic exercise that mistakes girth for weight. That’s not to say it lacks substance; on the contrary, it could use a whole lot more fizz to help its horse pills of soured Marxism go down. You can get away with this sort of thing after winning a Pulitzer (as Kushner did in 1993, for the even more sprawling, but also more cohesive, two-part Angels in America), and not before.
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The cast with which director John Vreeke has staffed this blowhardy behemoth is remarkable: It takes them longer than you’d think to exhaust your patience for eavesdropping as they yell at one another about dispensationalism and the 40-year decline of organized labor. But it still gets old, eventually, would you believe.
That mawful of a title is a riff on George Bernard Shaw’s Marxist text The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism; the show name-checks Shaw’s Major Barbara in its opening moments and Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, from which it nicks a plot point, later. But the document it recalled most vividly for me is The Royal Tenenbaums. Like Wes Anderson’s 2001 film, The Intelligent Homosexual’s core story follows an old, sad father’s attempt to reconnect with the children he’s disappointed. Also like Tenenbaums, it’s set mostly in the Brooklyn brownstone where those kids have grown into broken adults. Production designer Misha Kachman represents this crumbling edifice with a slanted, sagging bookshelf suspended above the stage and behind an oversize mantle that’s prescored to be broken away when the time comes—more than once—to start putting holes in the wall.
Superficial similarities, maybe. The play is almost exactly twice as long as Tenenbaums but not half as funny, and it groans beneath a bloated but vague political and theological payload that might be called subtext if anybody on stage shut up about it for more than a minute. Still, it finds moments of grace, thanks mainly to Tom Wiggin’s noble performance as Gus, a 72-year-old retired longshoreman, organizer, and Communist party member who survived a suicide attempt about a year before the play opens. (It’s set in June 2007, just prior to the U.S.’s economic near-collapse.) Though his disappointment in America and in himself has eroded his will to live, his body remains hale. “I’d do him,” says Pill, Gus’ 53-year-old history teacher son. The other two of Gus’s offspring are fairly messed up, too, but Pill is by far the most dysfunctional. Lou Liberatore digs into this unlikable character without vanity.
Gus throws his family for a loop by announcing his wish to off himself, sell the family home, and divide the proceeds among his heirs: Pill; Vito, a contractor; and Maria Teresa, or “Empty,” a labor lawyer who divorced her husband (though she still fucks him sometimes) and whose partner Maeve is great with the couple’s first child. (Empty’s brother Vito was the sperm donor.) Maeve, played by the acerbic Lisa Hodsoll, is the less irritating of the play’s two theologian academics, specifically “an apophatic theologian with pronounced kataphatic inclinations.” Yes, okay, but exactly what sort of a contractor is Vito?
Neither Empty (Susan Rome, ever reliable) nor Vito (Tim Getman, a fine actor, but miscast) want to lose the house, or their dad, but Empty might need the cash—she lent $30,000 she’d socked away for care of the baby to Pill, who blew it all on a hustler, Eli, who has a degree from Yale and can’t complete sentences. Eli, played with convincing frailty by Josh Adams, notes that the hefty sum Pill paid for his affections still represents a discounted rate. Pill tries to tell his fed-up husband, Paul, that the payments were “a prophylaxis against menace,” perhaps quoting a Def Leppard song that never existed.
The play’s most disposable subplot is Pill’s entreaty to Paul that he admit Eli into their marriage. As Paul, Michael Anthony Williams deserves some kind of honorary Helen Hayes Awards for the way he makes lines like “You’ve spent your whole life in fealty to a veritable machine for the manufacturing of paranoically implosive personalities!” sound vaguely like something a human being not actively engaged in an attempt to kill Batman might say. It’s a thankless part, and there’s nary a hint of whatever might’ve drawn him to the spineless Pill in the first place.
Thank god for Gus, still worrying his other two kids with his plan to kill himself for good this time. Jenifer Belle Deal has a superb single scene, late in the show, as a widow who assisted with her ill husband’s suicide. She brings Gus pills and advises him on how to off himself, painlessly, permanently, leaving as little biological or legal mess as possible for his survivors to clean up. Empty watches in the background. It’s a beautiful, understated moment, and a powerful reminder of what a few good actors can do when the playwright shuts up for a second.
1529 16th St. NW. $30-$60. (202) 518-9400. theaterj.org