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The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide

    to Capitalism and Socialism
    with a Key to the Scriptures

With a tip of the hat to George Bernard Shaw's socialist explication of capitalism, and a skeptical eye towards Mary Baker Eddy's Christian Science, decorated playwright Tony Kushner1 examines the history of the working class in the U.S. and its future, or lack thereof, through the eyes of Gus Marcantonio (Lawrence Hecht), a former union organizer and long-time member of the Communist Party U.S.A.

Lawrence Hecht as Gus Marcantonio
Lawrence Hecht as Gus Marcantonio
Photo: Michael Ensminger
 
Intellectually speaking, the play is Kushner's most ambitious to date, encompassing a serious examination of many social, political, economic, psychological, sexual, spiritual, and existential questions. As always, Kushner's writing is dense with historical references, yet it never ceases being poetic, mesmerizing, and remarkably structured, including several sections that take dialogue cross-hatching to never-before-attained heights. And let's face it: Kushner is one of the foremost magical realists writing in English, though here the magic is more emphemeral, and the realism grittier.

Hecht is brilliant in subtly unveilling Gus' complex analytical cosmology, as well as his convoluted connections to his sister, adult children, and their spouses and lovers; and, Hecht's comfort with Kushner's historical and multi-cultural details—from Horace to Hegel, from Dante to Dialectical Materialism—is genuinely all-consuming; which, together, create a natural arc for Gus' existential crisis.

Dee Covington as Empty and Lawrence Hecht as Gus
Dee Covington as Empty
and Lawrence Hecht as Gus
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Gus' kids, Empty (Dee Covington), Pill (Matthew Schneck), and V (Justin Walvoord) hold diverse opinions of his Marxist erudition and activism. Empty has gone from a nurse to a labor lawyer, while divorcing her husband, Adam (Brian Landis Folkins) and entering a lesbian relationship with Maeve (Karen Slack); Pill, a high school history teacher, who discovered he was gay as a teenager, lives with Paul (Kirkaldy Myers), an African-American theologian, while spending lavishly on a young hustler, Eli (Luke Sorge). V has rejected his father's ideological bent, but works with his hands as an independent building contractor and union carpenter, and is married to the super-insightful, Korean-American, Sooze (Desirée Mee Jung), who acts as the only effective referee in this familial free-for-all that at times makes Long Day's Journey into Night and August: Osage County look tame. Gus's sister, Clio (Anne Oberbroeckling), has transitioned from a former Discalced Carmelite nun to radical politico, and now to spiritual seeker, while keeping watch over Gus, as he sinks into depression over the state of the labor movement and his thwarted career organizing efforts.

The entire managerie (sans Eli) descends on the family's longstanding home, a Brooklyn brownstone, after Gus calls them together to discuss his plans for selling the house, as well as ending his life, with the help of a friend, Shelle (Emily Paton Davies).

Gus' unwavering focus on "the class system," as his lens of analysis, has resulted in two major disappointments in his life: first, his decision to give up his study of the classics and their languages; and second, his failure to change the system, after becoming a working man—"His hands were working. Homo laborans. Homo faber. Man the maker. Man the worker. That’s what hands do," as he puts it—and joining Local 1814 International Longshore and Warehouse Union, from which he is pensioned handsomely. But a compromise during a key labor strike haunts him. His depression and suicidal tendencies are the result.

What Gus fails to see (and perhaps, on another level, Kushner, too) is that the class-system model went out of date with advances in the automation of labor (machines, computers, robots, and AI) and the destruction of unions, beginning with the air traffic controllers' strike under Reagan (which Empty mentions). But this shift away from union versus management did not end the struggle, of course; it simply reverted the playing field back to pre-union times, to the root struggle: labor versus capital. Unions are just one means for labor to organize and assert its primacy.2

"Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration." —Abraham Lincoln, Annual Address to Congress, Dec. 3, 1861. (Selections from the Letters, Speeches, and State Papers of Abraham Lincoln, by Abraham Lincoln, edited by Ida Minerva Tarbell, Ginn & Company, 1911, p. 77.)

“Capitalism reduces labor to a commercial commodity to be traded on the market, rather than a social relationship between people involved in a common effort for survival or betterment.” —Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844

Anne Oberbroeckling as Clio and Matthew Schneck as Pill
Anne Oberbroeckling as Clio
and Matthew Schneck as Pill
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Given Clio's particular radical background (Peru's Shining Path, and the influence of Regis Debray's notion of "revolution within the revolution" throughout Latin America), she might have pointed out that revolutionary action is always evolving, but her focus at the time of the gathering of the Marcantonio clan is on spiritual healing via Christian Science. Though Gus dismisses Mary Baker Eddy's snake oil, given the slippery slope of her plagiarism and other doctrinal legerdemain, Oberbroeckling's steadfast centeredness, as Clio, speaks for itself, perhaps harkening to Kushner's early career adaptation of A Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds from Yiddish theatre, with its light-filled climax, or, the blinding light of his famous Angel's entrance.

As Gus himself recognizes, it is Empty who is his alter-ego, when it comes to debating politics and labor strategy, and Covington brings a wealth of empowerment to Empty, who goes toe-to-toe with her father over a vast range of subjects and their nuances. Kushner certainly understands and employs Shaw's technique for finding a diverse range of characters each of whom represents a unique and natural point-of-view towards the subjects he wants to explore.

(Left to right) Matthew Schneck as Pill and Luke Sorge as Eli
(L to R) Matthew Schneck as Pill and Luke Sorge as Eli
Photo: Michael Ensminger
A heart-to-heart between Pill and Gus becomes a wonderful moment for Kushner to mix the subjects of homosexuality and socialism, as well as modeling how a strong heterosexual father and his gay son understand one another. Schneck finds a chimera for Pill that is both sexually manic and intellectually acute, much like the dichotomy of his love life: his flame, Eli, and his long-time partner, Paul. Sorge physically understates Eli's hold on Pill, instead using his voice, his words, and his focus to enrapture him, until decision time looms, and Pill must make his choice; while Myers' Paul is dazzlingly sharp, satirically dry, and emotionally disciplined.

Emily Paton Davies as Shelle and Lawrence Hecht as Gus
Emily Paton Davies as Shelle
and Lawrence Hecht as Gus
Photo: Michael Ensminger
But, Kushner goes on to explore perhaps the widest range of the sexual spectrum in any of his works, given Empty's bisexual encounters, and V's heterosexual two-timing. Sexually speaking, V is much like his father, monogamous with at least one lapse that we know of, and a funny one at that, with his sister's lover Maeve (Slack is hilarious in her inimitable way, with Maeve taking herself so seriously), to provide half their baby's genes from Empty's family. Walvoord adds to the subtextual dry humor with V's defensiveness regarding that coupling, and leverages this imbalance throughout V's mood swings, as he feels let down by his father's decision to sell the brownstone that he has repaired and maintained pro bono for many years. In laughing off her husband's affair, Mee Jung sends a strong physical and psychological current through Sooze, underscoring her position as the family fixer.

Kushner gets his digs in with the banking industry when Adam pops a surprise on everyone. Folkins' keen comedic sense makes Adam a charming wildcard, who still loves his ex-wife and whose imagination punctuates the end of the second act with a good laugh! In the final act, Kushner's epic emotional range zeroes in on the larger existential questions regarding mortality. Davies' Shelle is a whole story unto herself, having tended her husband, a former co-worker with Gus, during his fatal struggle with ALS. Now, in the same karmic associated network (or "karass," as Vonnegut coined it), she counsels Gus on checking out in the same way, when all is lost. Davies handles all this in such a gentle—but matter of fact—way, the epitome of hospice care, treating Gus' despair as terminal. However, Kushner wisely leaves us with an open-ended question.

Lawrence Hecht as Gus
Lawrence Hecht as Gus
Photo: Michael Ensminger
This production is the fifth Kushner play produced by the company, all directed by Curious' artistic director, Chip Walton, whose experience with the playwright's complex verbal and physical challenges shines through, as the company's design team and ensemble bring it all home.

Curious Theatre Company's presentation of The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, by Tony Kushner runs through April 15th. For tickets: https://www.curioustheatre.org/event/intelligent-homosexuals-guide/.

Bob Bows



Footnotes:
1 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama — Angels in America: Millennium Approaches; 1993 Tony Award for Best Play — Angels in America: Millennium Approaches; 1994 Tony Award for Best Play — Angels in America: Perestroika
2 Like Marx, Kushner does not mention private control over money creation; i.e., the effects of privately owned central banks. Yet, it is this context, which engenders the present planetary power structure (per various peer-reviewed studies, for example, here and here), that progressive strategies must address.

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