It’s been perilously gusty this week outside the confines of Theater J — and within. A great torrent of words is whooshing across the company’s stage, courtesy of Tony Kushner and his garrulous, passionate, digressive, erudite, funny, caustic, unwieldy, instructive, didactic and sharp-elbowed comedy-drama, with its space-suck of a title.
Like the play itself, its name — “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures” — chafes against the ceiling of our need for information. There’s a lot to process in this 3
And yet, this being Kushner, American theater’s foremost opus-weaver (“Angels in America,” “Homebody/Kabul”), the play is engaging in a sprawling, untamed way — a messy mosaic, encrusted with gems; not his strongest piece, but as is always the case with this dramatist, a lively play packed with reasons to listen, even when it’s not easy-listenin’. At times, in fact, in director John Vreeke’s polished production, the arguing becomes so intense that it erupts all over the stage at once, with characters shouting at one another in competing clusters — another combustible Babel.
Distinguishing the voices in these interludes is sometimes as challenging for an audience member in the Goldman Theater as the larger task Kushner sets for us, understanding where this “Guide” is meant to take us. The battles across emotional, ideological, even theological lines — two of the 11 characters are religious scholars — rage in every direction, to an arcane extreme. How many plays, after all, include a consideration of the biblical issue of dispensationalism?
For all the angry, elevated cross-talk, however, “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide” returns over and over to one organizing and digestible theme, the fissures in the family of the old longshoreman, Gus Marcantonio (the ruggedly empathetic Tom Wiggin), and more specifically the question of why, in the face of the family’s anguish, he is determined to kill himself.
Kushner gives Gus a speech, well more than three hours into the play, in which he finally spells out his rationale for checking out. It’s a bit of a letdown, a spleen-venting that you imagine could easily have come way earlier and got us all home at a decent hour. Then again, “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide” attempts to embody as well as illuminate a paralysis that is overtaking Gus’s children and the society at large, a slow-moving, money-fed decay that is neutralizing dissent, neutering the environment and smothering the working class.
What alerts everyone to Gus’s seriousness about suicide — he has slashed his wrists once before — is that he’s put up for sale the brownstone that’s been in the family for generations. (The play is set in 2007, on the cusp of the country’s close-to-apocalyptic financial meltdown.) Gus’s kids, nursing their own psychic wounds, view the impending transaction not as a personal windfall but as a cataclysmic surrender: PierLuigi, or “Pill,” played by the excellent Lou Liberatore, is a history teacher married to theologist Paul (Michael Anthony Williams) but in love with sensitive young hustler Eli (Josh Adams); Maria Teresa, or “Empty,” portrayed by the equally terrific Susan Rome, is a nurse-turned-labor-lawyer who has left Adam (James Whalen) for the now-pregnant Maeve (Lisa Hodsoll); and Vito (Getman, in another impressive turn), a contractor married to Sooze (Sue Jin Song) and who has donated his sperm to Maeve and Empty.
Got all that? For good measure, Gus has invited to stay with him his sister Clio (Rena Cherry Brown), a former nun whose political radicalism led her to Peru and an absorption into the Maoists of the Shining Path guerrilla movement.
The gallery of characters allows Kushner a Chekhovian varnish: Rome’s Empty even reminds the others, in imitation of a Chekhov heroine, that it is important that they keep on working. And the marathon length of the play gives many of the actors their own opportunities to forge shining paths: Hodsoll is particularly good as the loud and histrionic Maeve; Brown makes for a fine, vinegary Clio; and Adams persuasively conveys the jumble of conflicting impulses that are Eli, a Yale alum who graduates to turning tricks.
It’s easy enough to point out that there’s material here for at least three plays: the concerns of “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide” cover everything from labor-union featherbedding to Catholic mendicant orders to the state of gay marriage. But connecting all the narrative dots might not be the best use of one’s first exposure to the play. Better to focus your attention on Gus, who in Wiggin’s grounded and searching performance, provides the evening with a useful touchstone. Like the play, he talks and talks but is rarely dull.
By Tony Kushner. Directed by John Vreeke. Sets, Misha Kachman; lighting, Dan Covey; projections, Jared Mezzocchi; music and sound, Eric Shimelonis; costumes, Ivania Stack. About 3½ hours. Tickets, $35-$65. Through Dec. 21 at Washington DCJCC, 1529 16th St. NW. Visit theaterj.org or call 800-494-8497.