Tony Kushner is frequently cited as the country’s leading working playwright, so it’s more than slightly alarming to hear the “Angels in America” playwright say, “I don’t want to lose my hand in the theater.”
Kushner, 58 and looking slightly ascetic as he sits on a wooden bench in his book-lined Manhattan office, has been working on movies increasingly since Mike Nichols turned “Angels” into a six-part Al Pacino-Meryl Streep HBO film in 2003. That led to co-writing “Munich” for Steven Spielberg, which begat years of immersion adapting historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” into Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”
Kushner’s last play was in 2009, when he premiered a 31 / 2-hour drama at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, expansively titled “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures.” That’s the latest – and to say it was written under duress is an understatement. The first draft was scratched together during rehearsal, and the play’s premiere was delayed. National critics were disinvited to this much-hyped centerpiece of the Guthrie’s three-event Kushner festival at the playwright’s request, even after the critics had already made travel plans. And when it did open, it was to tepid reviews in the Minnesota papers.
“A traumatic experience,” says Berkeley Repertory Theatre Artistic Director Tony Taccone, a longtime friend and colleague of Kushner’s.
The play gathers a contentious, politically fractious family to Brooklyn, where Gus, the 70-year-old socialist patriarch, has decided to end his life. The language is often fast and heady, and the tone is dark. It calls for 11 actors – a big cast, by modern stage standards.
Five years later, “iHo” (as Kushner and his colleagues have nicknamed the play) is getting only its fourth U.S. production, starting Nov. 13 at Washington’s Theater J.
“It’s a gigantic undertaking, and one that I have asked for a long time,” says director John Vreeke. A decade ago, Vreeke directed another demanding Kushner script for Theater J, the near four-hour “Homebody/Kabul,” about a curious British woman who vanishes in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The 2001 drama was written before the 9/11 attacks, and is characteristic of Kushner’s absorption with history and vivid political contexts.
Yet the American theater hasn’t been clamoring to do “iHo.” “It’s terrifying to most producers,” Vreeke says. And anyway, Kushner’s plate is full. In the works:
●A series for HBO (no details yet).
●An adaptation of David Kertzer’s nonfiction “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara” for Spielberg.
●A biopic of Barbara Jordan with Viola Davis.
●An opera about the death of Eugene O’Neill with composer Jeanine Tesori, his partner on their 2003 Broadway musical “Caroline, or Change.”
“And,” he concludes, “I have a couple ideas that are sort of on their way as plays.”
Oskar Eustis, another longtime Kushner comrade and the artistic director of Manhattan’s Public Theater says, speaks for an American theater that chronically loses its best and brightest to Hollywood. “We’ll have to share him a little,” Eustis says.
The tale of “iHo”’s creation is a combination of showbiz chutzpah and backstage farce. The idea first occurred to Kushner shortly after the New York-born, Louisiana-raised writer crashed into international view with “Angels,” his compulsively watchable saga of AIDS and Reaganism.
The play made him a figurehead for gay issues and – gasp! – socialism. Or at least revealed him as someone, he says, “willing to talk about socialism. The idea that it wasn’t just this terrible notion that had been relegated to the dustbin of history felt sort of dangerous and scary to me.”
Kushner wrote a lecture, and used it at speaking engagements. When he turned 40, he began a monologue about a writer trying to construct something with the elaborate title – part George Bernard Shaw, part Mary Baker Eddy – he had already settled on.
The kick start came when Guthrie Artistic Director Joe Dowling called and proposed a six-week Kushner festival at his Minnesota theater. The bill would feature “Caroline, or Change,” short works called “Tiny Kushner,” and a brand new Tony Kushner play.
“I did something I had never done before and I will never ever do again,” Kushner says. “I said yes to the idea of having an opening night set for a play I hadn’t written yet.”
Kushner, already in the “Lincoln” vortex, called some actors he knew to see if they’d be in the show. “They said, ‘As long as you promise you’ll have a script some time before rehearsal starts,’” he recalls. “And we laughed.”
A few weeks before rehearsal there was still no script. Kushner called Dowling. “I’m freaking out,” he said. “I sort of thought Joe would say, ‘Don’t worry, it will all be fine.’ Instead he got completely hysterical.” Kushner impersonates Dowling’s high voice and Irish accent: “‘Oh, this is terrible, it’s a disaster!’ I ended up calming him down. I thought, ‘This man’s going to jump out a window. I’ve got to write.’ ”
Kushner brought in the first scene on the second day of rehearsal. By then, the actors — who already had talked copiously with Kushner about the nonexistent play — felt such ownership that they sometimes told him their characters wouldn’t say or do the things he wrote. Nobody, not even Kushner, heard the whole thing from start to finish until the very first preview performance.
Kushner recalls it as the smoothest first preview ever. “Because everyone was so out of their minds with terror, we were completely focused, like soldiers going into a very dangerous battle,” he says.
At one point Kushner noticed that he kept making a big deal about a car honking outside. His descriptions of the horn were increasingly elaborate, even biblical. He stopped and thought: his own father, growing ill with kidney disease, was a musician. (He died two years ago.) His mother, who died in 1990, loved Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal,” with its title drawn from Revelation — seven angels blowing seven trumpets.
“I’d been in denial,” he says, cautioning, as he father made him promise to do, that his dad was not really like the firebrand Gus in “iHo.” “But I was writing this play about this old man who really wants to die, and his three children — two boys and a girl, which is my family constellation — and the mother is dead. I was denying to myself that there was anything of my family about it. And at that moment I thought, Okay: I’m blowing a trumpet in my own ear. This is what this is about.”
The reviews were respectful but mixed, at best, with the phrase “at times skates precipitously close to the razor’s edge of incoherence” sticking out like a jagged warning in theater critic Graydon’s Royce’s notice for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The opening had been delayed a week. Tickets were discounted to $10 for the month of June.
Kushner buckled down further, significantly revising the story but not shortening it as “iHo” was staged at Eustis’s Public in 2011 and Taccone’s Berkeley Rep earlier this year; a London production may be in the works for next spring. “Rich, deep, beautiful, suggestive,” The New Yorker opined of the Public’s version, with the headline “High Marx.” Kushner thinks he’s finally ready to publish the play (though he is known as a relentless rewriter), and he says audiences really do stick with it.
“I’m not saying they’re not tired at the end of the thing,” he says. “But I think it’s genuinely entertaining, even when it’s upsetting.”
“It will scare some people because it is so f---ing smart,” Eustis says of “iHo.” He adds that the intellectual range of Kushner’s plays “is not within our normal comfort zone as American theater people. But for me, the upside is how he’s expanding the territory theater is willing to tackle. Theater can stand this kind of size.”
Vreeke makes no apologies for the challenging length and depth of “Homebody,” or of “iHo.” “I love every inch of it,” he says. “And I think every inch is playable.”
It’s all the new Kushner that there is to play, thanks to the irresistible film projects developed in rarefied air. Kushner told Taccone about one extravagant day when Spielberg flew Lincoln scholars in to have their brains picked by the filmmakers. “Just being around that kind of force field is astonishing,” Taccone says. “And he’s not writing things he doesn’t want to write.”
Even a year after “Lincoln’s” opening, Kushner is still in its afterglow. “I don’t know what the next phase will be like,” he says. “I do know that I need to be able to get to a point where I can resume the more exclusive focus on theater that I once had.”
Then he playfully compares himself to Eve Harrington dabbing crocodile tears as she leaves the theater crowd for Hollywood at the end of “All About Eve.” With Bette Davis hauteur, he quotes from the film: “Nice speech, Eve. But I wouldn’t worry too much about your heart. You can always put that award where your heart ought to be.”
There has never been any question about where his heart is, politically. Citizen Kushner is a creature of the left (and a sometime target of hard-line Israel supporters, who unsuccessfully protested an honorary degree bestowed on Kushner by the City University of New York in 2011). Brief rants pepper the conversation: he scoffs about do-nothing Congresses, lingering Reaganism, the underfunding and understaffing of the World Health Organization as the Ebola threat grows. He knows history, breathes politics and writes fabulous speeches. Would he ever run for office, as a certain breed of true-believing writers and performers has been known to do?
His tone shifts to awe. He believes in public service, and is under no illusion about its difficulties. “It must have been hell for Lincoln as it [the Civil War] got worse and worse and worse,” he says in the middle of a long, thoughtful response that concludes: “I wouldn’t vote for me.”
So he’s a writer. But for someone with Kushner’s taste for tough issues and deep thinking, surely his native ground – the theater – could be more receptive.
“I personally have some complaints,” he says with a broad, disarming smile, “and I feel like this play should have been done more. Maybe this is the beginning of a larger interest in it. I hope that’s the case.”
The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures by Tony Kushner. Nov. 13-Dec. 21 at Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW. Tickets $30-$60, subject to change. Call 800-494-8497 or visit www.washingtondcjcc.org.