Not for the faint of heart

Scenes from The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, at the DCJCC. Photo by C. Stanley Photography
Scene from The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, at the DCJCC.
Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Playwright Tony Kushner writes sprawling works. Plays that make you sit for 3 1/2 hours; or span two evenings; that wrestle with doctoral-level theoretical ideas and long-forgotten footnotes to history. Plays that are so chock full of ideas – Marxist dialects and social theology, theophany and dispensationalism, probabilism and … oh, never mind. Even the title of Kushner’s latest, which first premiered in 2009 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and is getting its Washington premiere at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center’s Theater J, is a mouthful: The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.

In his two-part overview of Reaganism, conservatism, life, death and the onset of the AIDS epidemic, Angels in America, Parts 1 and 2, Kushner took the long view of late 20th-century America and its uncomfortable politics and history resulting in a piece that was eloquent, grandiose and spectacularly poignant on multiple levels. IHo is imbued with similar Kushner markers on a smaller scale but it still takes viewers on a wild and wide-ranging 3 ½-hour, two-intermission ride. And it is worth the trip.

IHo, as it’s colloquially known, is a kitchen-table drama on steroids, set in the beautiful but fading Brooklyn brownstone of Gus Marcantonio, patriarch of a 21st-century opinionated, overeducated, liberal, urban American family. Sure, no characters in this play are specifically Jewish, the Marcantonios are Italian Catholics, but like the suggestively Jewish Lomans of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman or the specifically Jewish Bergers of Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing, they’re an “every family” that fights with equal amounts of animosity and love.

At stake here is a decision that Gus, 72, and played with working-class vigor by Tom Wiggin, has made: He plans to kill himself, claiming he has Alzheimer’s disease, and sell his Brooklyn brownstone, which has been in the family for generations, to the highest bidder. A one-time longshoreman, Gus long ago gave up the docks for union organizing and the GAI – guaranteed annual income the union negotiated for long-term employees, which paid them for not working and destroyed the union for younger members.

His three voluble adult children and their disparate partners and ex-partners, as well as a feisty sister, all gather to argue and cajole, plead and bicker, about Gus’ decision and his early unsuccessful attempt to slash his wrists in the bathtub upstairs. Kushner’s game is on, and under director John Vreeke’s watch, the stakes are high as the family, with all its crazy and entirely contemporary modern-day subplots and relationships, builds itself up into an epic, nay, operatic battle for Gus’s life.

There’s Pill (the handsome and conflicted Lou Liberatore), a high school history teacher who never finished his dissertation, and Pill’s husband, Paul (Michael Anthony Williams) a university theologian. Gus isn’t happy about his son’s gay lifestyle, but is about his partner.

Then there’s V, or Vito (Tim Gettman), the working stiff, a construction worker who wields a hammer like his brother and sister wield political dialectics. Even though he isn’t adept in the sometimes mind-numbing arguments of ideas, he still has heft and a say in this overwrought family dynamic.

Empty, short for Maria Teresa (the delicious Susan Rome), is a one-time nurse turned labor lawyer, who left her husband Eli (Josh Adams, who has one of Kushner’s funniest lines of the evening) for a relationship with Maeve (Lisa Hodsoll), a protege of Paul’s and another “theologist.” Maeve is extremely pregnant and, oh boy, is it complicated.

This is a family that talks and argues and curses, and betrays, but somehow, there remains a deep and abiding love beneath all the high-strung arguments and high-minded arguments. No one is afraid of spouting Marx or insulting someone by stating they watch Fox News. So, while the stakes are high – life or death for Gus – the intensity of the evening builds slowly into choreographed chaos. But before that, Gus’ loopy sister, Clio (the exquisite Rena Cherry Brown), a one-time Carmelite nun who spent time in the Shining Path, Peru’s Maoist guerilla cell, provides both a stabilizing undercurrent – she gives Maeve breathing lessons to assuage the Braxton-Hicks contractions – and a comically finessed deus ex machina of sorts moment featuring the Virgin Mary. Really.

Here in iHo, Kushner’s wrestling with angels is about battling moral conundrums large and larger: affairs and broken relationships, the sex trade, the fading of labor unions and the rise of the individualist capitalist ideas even in Brooklyn, where long-held family brownstones are being bought up for millions by a rising class of 1 percenters. There’s, of course, a heavy dose of normative gay culture, plenty of profanity peppering these high-minded socio, political and philosophical arguments, and a post-coital sex scene with semi-nudity that may be discomfiting for some
Theater J viewers.

In the end, like all Kushner works, iHo reminds us again that the arc of history is long and that our choices, public and private, personal and political, hold consequences, and whether or not Kushner’s Marcantonio family characters are Jewish, they speak with a voice that resonates in our Jewish family and community, about ideas, facts and opinions that matter.

IHo is not for the faint of heart or for the political sissy. Kushner speaks truth against power with his own Jewish social, political and historical sensibilities made, again, clearly visible. He’s given us a key, and, yes, it’s complex, challenging, arcane, sometimes hard to bear. Ultimately, the choice remains, of course, with the theater-goer whether to enter fully into Kushner’s argumentative and loving and obtuse universe. The rewards are there for the taking, and, yes, even
at 3 1/2 hours, the time spent is well worth it.

Theater J has, once again, triumphed in vividly presenting a production that offers multiple inroads for challenging conversation and disagreement, opportunities to argue and compromise, wrestle with ideas – exemplifying what the art form can do best, and why it matters.

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures is onstage through Dec. 21 at the DCJCC’s Theater J in the District. Tickets, at $40-$65, are available by visiting or calling 800-494-8497.

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