“The best thing I ever did was the worst thing I ever did. And it all came to nothing. It makes no sense to anyone, what we did, it’s written in a language no one reads anymore, it’s… incredible”
Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures has been given the moniker #iHo for short, though quite why that impulse has kicked in now is not clear, for the play is a hard-going three and a half hours full of wordily complex pontifications. The mechanics of social media aside, to suggest that it can be encapsulated in a three letter hashtag feels crudely reductive.
The play centres on the Marcantonio family, a brood of Italian-Americans summoned back to their Brooklyn brownstone by patriarch Gus who has decided to commit suicide. He says it is because of encroaching Alzheimer’s but it is his ideals that this former Communist has lost rather than his marbles, and it is this crisis that sparks off lengthy debate after lengthy debate about faith and politics, socialism and America with his three adult children and their motley collection of partners.
And when I say lengthy I mean it, the verbosity of the title is a powerful indicator as to the nature of the vast majority of the dialogue in the play and it is tough, tough going. For example, Kushner and director Michael Boyd offer up a scene of near-transcendent symphonic clamour as everyone pitches in to an overlapping shouted argument but ultimately it is hollow, for it is dramatically inert. So naturally it happens again and again, Wikipedia entries regurgitated and reinterpreted as white noise.
In some ways that’s unfair, the intellectual depth of Kushner’s writing is presumably kosher (I’m not going to pretend to I picked up half the references and allusions here). But in loading up his characters with such heavyweight intelligence, he’s neglected to give them corresponding heart – there’s far too little sense of them as real people, related people at that. And so by the time the storm quietens down for a moving pair of final scenes, it’s almost too little too late.
It is fearsomely acted though, particularly by Tamsin Greig as MT (pronounced Empty, how deep…), Richard Clothier’s PL (Pill) and Lex Shrapnel’s V, the three squabbling siblings whose emotional and physical heritage comes under siege. All three have their moments of elevating the drama into something electric and are matched brilliantly by David Calder’s Gus along with Sara Kestelman as his fierce but long-suffering sister whose exit makes you want to take her by the hand and join her.