Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Theater of Ideas

A review of The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, written by Tony Kushner, and directed by Michael Grief

The Activist

The new play by Tony Kushner is great fun, with many delightful Marxist asides and insights. The title was inspired by George Bernard Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism & Capitalism and Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.

The main character is Gus Marcantonio, patriarch, long time widower, proud, retired and disillusioned Communist longshoreman. Gus is the first cousin of the moderately pro-Communist Congressman Vito Marcantonio from East Harlem. Gus lives in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, in a huge brownstone, where he raised his family in the culture of the Communist Party and the working class. The brownstone has been in the family for generations. Now it is worth big bucks.

Gus wants to commit suicide. Exactly why Gus wants to commit suicide is a problematic question throughout the play. His family has been called and rallies to his side to dissuade him. The gathered family includes Gus’s sister Clio (Brenda Wehle, an ex-Carmelite nun and ex-Maoist); the oldest son, Pill (Stephen Spinella), a high school history teacher; a lesbian daughter, Empty (Linda Emond), a labor lawyer and formerly a nurse; and the much younger son, Vito or V (Steven Pasquale), a local building contractor. All have returned, with their lovers, ex-lovers, and ex-husbands, to the family brownstone, “la casa paterna” to talk Gus out of taking his life.

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures offers an opportunity to enter Gus’s radical and labor past. The longshoremen union’s conquest of a “guaranteed annual income” labor contract plays on Gus’s conscience. In an attempt at work sharing in an age of automation and containerization, older longshoremen with the most seniority received a guaranteed annual income and benefits without actually having to work on the docks, while the younger men did not. What happened to the younger workers troubles Gus. He is contrite that he may have sold out the younger workers. Gus feels that he now lives in a post-Marxian world that has given up and given in. “What you call progress, I call the prison rebuilding itself,” he tells Empty, his lesbian daughter and labor attorney.

From my perspective, the play delightfully brings into focus the forgotten Italian-American radical past. Kushner authentically captures the politics, aspirations and pathos of the immigrant Italian working class, their children and their grandchildren. Importantly, the Marcantonio family does not resemble the media-invented Italian-American family stereotype. For example, the Marcantonio’s kitchen is the only kitchen in Carroll Gardens that doesn’t cook Italian food.

Gus Marcantonio, artfully played by actor Michael Cristofer, is an authentic Italian-American patriarch, complete with Communist politics. There are many witty, flamboyant rhetorical digressions to Edward Bernstein, Leon Trotsky, Gil Green, Karl Marx, V.I. Lenin, Peter Kropotkin, the “good socialists,” the International Longshoreman’s Association and the Paterson, New Jersey Italian anarchist’s club.

The play captures the radical tradition, sex, sexual identity, sexual politics, prostitution, parenting, theology, the real estate bubble, unions, radicals, the right to die, the importance of family, the role of religion in contemporary society, the meaning of love and fidelity — these are only a few of the issues raised in the course of the play’s 3 and one-half hours. The queer subplots are extraordinary, often funny, and powerful. I doubt there is other playwright writing today that even comes close to looking at radical cultural history and Italian-Americans in this light. This is not another dysfunctional family entertainment, it’s much more. Kushner is an ideas man. He is also obviously indebted to Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, about a Brooklyn longshoreman bringing down his family.

Having been raised in an Italian immigrant and radical family, ruled by a mild mannered anarchist patriarch, I will attest to the authenticity achieved by Tony Kushner in The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.

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