Tony Kushner’s latest play is a four-hour slap to the face.
I mean that in a good way.
“The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures,” now playing in the Shaw Festival’s Studio Theatre, is a spectacular battle of wills, wits and ideas that unfolds in what might be the same kitchen where Willie Loman once poured out his tortured soul or where Blanche DuBois finally disintegrated into a dream. It concentrates a century of social and political struggle into a family dispute of pyrotechnic proportions.
It is dizzying, intoxicating, unsettling and thrilling – all those things the theater promises but too rarely delivers. It is also flawed, painting some characters less believably than others.
But in a production directed with characteristic verve and profound sensitivity by Eda Holmes and delivered by a superb cast led by Jim Mezon and Kelli Fox, we get a snapshot circa 2007 of a fractured America dragging itself, exhausted, into a terrifying new century.
Like much of Tony Kushner’s best work, it is motivated by an addictive paradox he picked up from the likes of Arthur Miller: The smaller and more familiar he makes his characters and their struggles, the grander the intellectual and historical scope of his work is allowed to become.
This principle was heroically at work in his masterpiece “Angels in America,” and it is also the dark heart of his latest piece of exasperating theater, which concerns a family so fractured and dysfunctional that they seem like they might collectively explode at any moment.
Lights up on Pill (Steven Sutcliffe), a tortured high school history teacher intent on destroying himself via an impossible love affair with a gay hustler named Eli (Ben Sanders). Lights up on patriarch Gus Marcantonio (Mezon), a former longshoreman, fierce communist and union leader intent on committing suicide for a variety pack of reasons having ostensibly to do with the failure of the labor movement. Lights up on his good-hearted labor lawyer daughter (Fox) and his rage-filled working-class son (Gray Powell, who can somehow break your heart with a slight adjustment of the eyebrow).
Lights up on one of the most dysfunctional family units ever to materialize on the stage, including anything Tracy Letts could dream up. Across three acts, there is a volley of accusations and recriminations, miniature make-ups and maximalist breakdowns through which Kushner’s characters let every last bit of air out of their already deflated souls.
As in “Angels,” Kushner makes his big ideas – especially about the failure of leftist politics to effect lasting economic change – sound palatable by putting them in the mouths of deeply flawed characters like Pill. Along with Gus and his daughter Empty, these characters’ flaws stand in poetically – and against all odds, convincingly – for what Kushner sees as the flaws of American politics, and of the left.
The disappointment comes out with simmering rage from Mezon, who brings the same commanding presence to this role that he did so memorably to Holmes’ production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” in 2011, when he makes such venomous declarations as “life is nothing but death disguised” or that he refuses to participate in a world of “hollow, valueless” things. He is matched by the rest of the cast, especially the utterly naturalistic Fox, whose tenacity and volume are always undergirded by a kind of yearning sensitivity.
Out of anyone else’s pen, Kushner’s goal to so obviously weave the personal and the political would be bound to seem irritatingly preachy (see: “The Divine”) or mind-numbingly boring. Out of Kushner’s, it sings. And the song gets stuck in your head.
And the Shaw Festival is the perfect spot for this piece, not only because its title and much of its political content draws directly from Shaw, but because Kushner at his best amplifies the very Shavian ideas and ideals the great man often couldn’t step away from his pulpit long enough to properly broadcast.
He does this by grabbing Shaw, with all his fierce intellectual acumen intact, and forcibly sitting him down at Arthur Miller’s table. It is there, where petty family fights meet paralyzing party politics, where heartfelt admissions converge with hard-edged convictions, and, ultimately, where Kushner succeeds at synthesizing the disparate threads of 20th century drama into a shocking new vision.
It is a spectacular event to behold, on Peter Hartwell’s cozy set and accentuated in a minor key with incidental music by Paul Sportelli. It all makes the less-than-reassuring message of the evening, as delivered by Gus, go down a bit easier:
“I’m alone in this prison, and you’re alone in yours.”