Behemoth in duration(nearly four hours), Pulitzer-award winning playwright Tony Kushner's long-awaited West Coast premiere, The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, clutches in its literary grasp everything from George Bernard Shaw (Shaw wrote an essay titled The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism) to Mary Baker Eddy's Christian Science doctrine (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures is a primary text of the religion) to the 16th Epistle of Horace, a Roman poet from the first century B.C., to shades of playwright predecessors Anton Chekhov, Arthur Miller, and more.
Stretching theater's topical bandwidth, iHo (Kushner's husband suggested the abbreviated title) tells the story of an Italian family in Brooklyn. Kushner's fiery brilliance prolifically addresses assisted suicide, labor law and the death of the American Communist Party, Marxism, heterosexual and homosexual relationships, theology, prostitution and ultimately, the value — both cash in the bank and treasures held in the heart — of everything.
Never one to shrink from a muscular drama, Kushner is best known for his two-part, eight-hour epic, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. iHo was written in 2009 for the Minnesota-based Guthrie Theater and subsequently opened in New York in a co-production between the Public and Signature theaters.
The drama swirls around Gus, a 72-year-old Italian-American longshoreman (played with unrelenting fervor by Mark Margolis, who some will recognize as Breaking Bad's Tio) who's convinced he is suffering from Alzheimer's, but who is more likely crumbling under the disillusionment of dreams destroyed. He's planning to sell his Brooklyn brownstone and plotting a second suicide attempt after a wrist-slitting expedition one year before "failed." His three adult children arrive, alerted by Gus's sister Clio (the mesmerizing Randy Danson). Clio is a former Carmelite nun/Maoist teetering on Christian Scientist ideology who has been watching over her brother. His daughter, Empty (the name a reduction from Maria Theresa to M.T., played with vivid clarity by Deirdre Lovejoy) is a former nurse turned labor lawyer who clings most feverishly to her father's ideals. Eldest son Pill (Lou Liberatore, offering consummate layering), is a high school teacher with a dangling doctoral thesis and a dangerous liaison with Eli, a hustler. Pill is married to Paul, (played by Tyrone Mitchell Henderson with delicious, slice-and-dice ruthlessness) a college professor who's nervy enough to accuse Gus of triggering the siblings' dysfunction in Act I. Vito (Joseph J. Parks making thick a role with pinched potential in lesser hands) is the family's youngest: a successful contractor married to the incessantly curious Sooze (the hilarious Tina Chilip).
Crowded enough? Well, there's also Adam, Empty's ex-husband (with whom she is still having sex, during visits to his basement apartment in Gus' house) and Maeve, Empty's pregnant (by way of Vito) lesbian wife. And Shelle (deftly handled by Robynn Rodriguez), whose how-to suicide explanation reveals Kushner at his most commanding — prompting us to feel simultaneously aghast and anguishing for more of the same.
Fortunately, Kushner has an ingenious collaborator in Berkeley Rep Artistic Director Tony Taccone. Especially in the maddening and magical scenes where overlapping arguments force a listener to choose, Taccone's structuring reveals internal lessons. Do we veer away from sexual arenas? Do we favor the father, reminded of our own family's patriarchal construction? Do our choices show us to be cowardly or brave in the face of conflict? Crafting the massive ache of the play's emotional tornado requires deftness and dexterity: Taccone has both.
Important theater like this isn't easy, that much is clear. And it would be wrong to forego noting the play's unstoppable humor and empathetic core. Love him or hate him, Kushner, in the end, knows brokenness and keeps kicking — which might be, after all the screaming is over, the play's final message.