Playwright Tony Kushner may go down in theatrical history as the Richard Wagner of the stage. The two, although separated by a century, have a lot in common. They both wrote very long works, sometimes too long to squeeze into a single sitting. Wagner’s “Ring” cycle takes four operas to complete, for a total of 17-plus hours of music. Kushner’s “Angels in America” was spread out over two nights. His latest, “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures,” takes nearly four hours to perform — the title is so long, let’s just call it “Intelligent” from here on.
Both men worked on big ideas: Wagner’s mostly derived from legend and myth, Kushner’s from the fabric of everyday American life in our time. “Intelligent” themes stretch from the rise and fall of the Communist empire to labor unions, love — both filial and conjugal — betrayal and death, with a sprinkling of the philosophy of Horace and present-day theology on top. And, finally, both men, with their piercing intellects and undeniable mastery of their mediums — notes and words — created works that are well worth the sit. I’ve seen “The Ring” some eight times and am not tired of it yet; the recent performance of “Intelligent” at Berkeley Rep seemed to go by in a flash.
It’s a really good play, in turns very sad and very funny. Gus (a riveting Mark Margolis) the patriarch of an Italian-American family in Brooklyn and former longshoreman and labor organizer, has called the clan — his three children and assorted spouses, ex-spouses and significant others, plus the sister who has been tending to him for a year — together to discuss his impending suicide. Which they do, loudly and at length, often all speaking at the same time. And that’s OK because you get what you get and the effect of the cacophony is terrific.
The chaos of these people’s lives mirrors the chaos of their conversation and, when the play is not focussing on Gus’ planned demise, it explores the relationships of the siblings with each other, their father and the lovers in their lives. There is Pill (Lou Liberatore), a gay history teacher betraying his husband of two decades and more (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) with a young hooker (Jordan Geiger) on whom he has squandered a fortune, as well as his heart. There is Vito, the youngest (Joseph J. Parks), a building contractor who is doing the conventional wife-and-kids-and-carpools number with a seething rage underneath it all. There is Clio, the aunt (Randy Danson), a former nun who is an island of calm in this household (except that she was a member of The Shining during a stint in Peru). But, most of all, there is Empty (short for Maria Teresa), the favorite child, most like her father, a labor lawyer who has not yet lost her ideals. Magnificently embodied by Deirdre Lovejoy, she tries to be the voice of reason but has her own problems and screw-ups. Mainly Adam, her ex (Anthony Fusco), who lives in the basement of the family home and may be trying to sell it, and Maeve (Liz Wisan), her very pregnant partner in a same-sex relationship with a baby that Empty only pretends to want.
The cast is rounded out by Tina Chilip, pert and funny as Vito’s wife, and Robynn Rodriguez, who comes in near the end with a do-it-yourself suicide kid for Gus. Anchored by Margolis and Lovejoy and deftly directed by Berkeley Rep Artistic Director Tony Taccone, they all are well cast and each gets their moment in the spotlight, turning them into real people instead of theatrical constructs. Christopher Barecca did the sliding three-level house design, complete with front stoop where Pill’s husband sits stewing, with brief incursions into the hooker’s room and a park fence where Pill and his two lovers have a confrontation. Costumes are by Meg Neville, lighting by Alexander V. Nichols and sound by Jake Rodriguez.
You may, as I did, love “Intelligent.” Or you may hate sitting through it. One thing is certain, you won’t soon forget it.