Notes on the New Kushner (2009–2011)


This write-up is either very late or very early. In June 2009, I spent a weekend in Minneapolis and, at the Guthrie Theater, saw the first production of Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism with a Key to the Scriptures—conveniently, cutely, and/or pragmatically shortened to iHomo to those working with the play. Just prior to opening night, the Guthrie had disinvited national critics from reviewing the show—at the time, news stories described Kushner’s literally last-minute…not just revisions of the play but actually last-minute writing of the play. The result, by the time I saw the show, mid-run, was on-the-fly, timely, exciting, and three acts and three-and-a-half hours long, mess be damned. A new production of the play—with the same director, Michael Grief, and much the same cast—opens next month at the Public Theater. It may be similar or substantially different from what I saw at the Guthrie. I wrote some notes after seeing the 2009 production, and the rest of this piece is taken from those notes.

I left iHomo with the impression that Tony Kushner’s top strength as a playwright is that he makes all of his characters equally smart, articulate, and complicated: complicated emotionally, complicated in thought and knotfully complicated in the rhythms and looping grammar of their speech. The speeches in this play often are not dramatic, and the lack of excitement over the play’s situational plot twists underline that, while the plot gives context to the dialogue, it is not compelling in and of itself. In the end (and I think this is true with Angels as well), what the characters say, how they say it, and how it reflects their thinking, is more compelling and more vivid than what they do. Kushner has the audacity to write conversation, not just dialogue—to write characters whose energy flows through what they say and how they think, as much as how they act. Despite the reputation as a Fabulist, Kushner’s audacity and innovation often comes from, as a playwright, being a Conversationalist.

Which is fine, since what these characters say in this play is so full of life and ideas and emotions. Kushner throws in a few family-secret plot twists that, at least at the performance I saw, didn’t leave the audience gasping—they didn’t pay off because we in the audience weren’t caught up in the plot as much as the conversation. We had adjusted to a suspension of disbelief closer to Platonic dialogues than an imagined backstory and offstage work. (Jane Smiley took a similar approach

With a minor spoiler (one also mentioned in any review I’ve seen of the play so far), I have one substantial suggestion, if Kushner or his people happen upon this post. The play centers on Gus, the family patriarch who, near the start of the play, announces his intention to kill himself and sell his house. It isn’t until nearly the end of the play that we see a scene in which someone shows Gus a bowl of pills and explains to him, in extreme detail, a painless way that he could kill himself. Having that same scene early in the play would make Gus’s decision vivid for us—he wouldn’t just be talking about killing himself but actually have a method of it right there in the room, and the props used in that scene would be among the clutter of the stage from the beginning, hiding in plain sight. Underneath all of the compelling conversation would be the dramatic stakes, grounding everything.

iHomo reminded me simultaneously of a few other plays: August: Osage County, with its potentially suicidal patriarch; some of Terrence McNally’s plays of self-loathing middle-aged Manhattan men and the young hustlers they befriend; also, in its branching story and its grand ambitions, Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota.

I loved seeing Michael Cristofer in the lead role here as Gus. Cristofer is also a playwright, and won the Pulitzer for The Shadow Box in 1977. Made me think of how Tracy Letts acted in Homebody/Kabul at Steppenwolf, which in turn made me wonder about the history of playwrights acting in others’ plays: Ayckbourn acted in one of the first productions of Pinter’s The Birthday Party—who else?

It’s exciting to see a play written in the near-present. When Gus warns about the crime and poverty in the years ahead, he’s a character in 2009 talking about the actual years ahead—literally 2010, 2011. That’s really exciting and immediate, and something that happens rarely in theater, given the typical advance planning of staging a play.

Much of the play is a particular kind of theatrical naturalism—scenes are established with some hyper-real, non-metaphorical pieces of furniture. The verbosity and fact-checked realism harkens to The Corrections and Freedom. The play also has a few scenes staged more sparingly and abstractly, just bodies and language and light, which can lead to more actively intense listening. There are no angels in iHomo—just hardwood furniture with a legacy, a family and country in crisis, and a lot of smart conversation.

  • April 14, 2011
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