Friday, June 5, 2009

MN visit: Kushner at the Guthrie

While in the Twin Cities to celebrate our upcoming wedding, Lady Hotspur & I saw Tony Kushner's new play, The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide*, at the Guthrie. Lady H. noted that the show could lose 45 minutes. Of course, a 105-minute Kushner play is farfetched. But we did see a work-in-progress, so please read my notes accordingly.

The basic conflict is a clever irony: a family of Marxists gather to decide who'll inherit their home. Or that's the pretext, anyway: the patriarch, Gus (Michael Cristofer), has called a vote (w/ a consensus rule) on whether to kill himself. Gus is a zesty role: a Brooklyn-bred Italian-American, a former dockworker & union leader, and an overbearing father who, ironically, is closer to his daughter than to his two sons.

The family's architecture is solid, rooted in their shared history but living in a dramatic present. But it's also where the script needs work. Of the three children, Kushner focuses mostly on a queer love triangle between the elder son, his husband and a hustler. This subplot loops, drifts, & sometimes just kills time, but it never quite justifies itself. And it's at the expense of the younger son, who fades away in the third act and takes other minor roles with him. I'd like Kushner to pare the romantic subplot (maybe resolve it earlier, in Act 2?) and add substance to the youngest son.

Probably the show's great strength isn't the script, or Michael Greif's direction (which is inversely related to the number of actors onstage -- the more there are, the less sure he is). It's the cast. Linda Emond (as Gus's daughter) and Kathleen Chalfant (as his serene, gnomic sister) again prove they're perfect vessels for Kushner's characters. Cristofer matches them, esp. in a final speech where Gus describes an earlier suicide attempt, conflating sex with death in an almost mystical way. But the youngest son and the hustler both need actors with more presence.

It's odd to see radical Kushner try on the most traditional American genre, domestic realism. All that family resentment, the threats of suicide and revelations of quasi-incest, and a juvenile rage at the American way of life! It's not a dialectic, it's a cacophany. The genre's thrills & twists suit him well, but he's still learning how to deploy them. Something to look forward to!

I also can't wait to catch the play in its final iteration: comparing the '01 draft of Homebody/Kabul with the '04 version was a rare dramaturgical experience. Meanwhile, my MN pals should catch it now.

* full title: The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism & Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures

1 comment:

dubetest said...

Interesting! A couple of my strongest impressions were just the opposite of yours. Caroline, Nick & I saw it Wednesday. I thought some members of the cast were the weak bits, and that the script & direction carried the show. Gus in particular I found forced until at least the middle of the second act. There were a lot of scenes where the whole family would be on stage arguing at once, and I didn't think those worked during the first act either. Something warmed up and I enjoyed that dynamic in the second and third - maybe just because there was more tension towards the end of the show so more energy on stage.

I got a lot out of the love-triangle sub-plot. I thought it dovetailed well with the remaining themes of commitment and abandonment, boredom and excitement, and selfishness and generosity. I thought the play articulated how those themes play out in romance, familial relationships, careers or commitments to a cause. I got a general sense that the play's message, if any, was pro commitment, pro marriage, pro reformist and anti radical. Mostly I enjoyed watching 3 hours of riffs on those themes.

For me, the show went by fast. Granted, I think Caroline & I both had quite a bit of coffee to get us through, but I certainly didn't get bored.

The younger son did fade away. I was partly disturbed by that, but on the other hand, his role in the family was to be shielded from the father's insanity but also from his passions, and I think therefore somewhat neglected. I was disturbed that we didn't get to see the effect of his father's final lie, but I wasn't otherwise upset with how well I knew him.

I dug the set, and I liked the daughter.