Review: “Intelligent” flashes brilliance at the Guthrie

 The new play commissioned of Tony Kushner by the Guthrie Theater, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism & Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, is the clear successor to Kushner’s masterpiece, Angels in America, picking up many of the same arguments about love, sexuality, and politics while adding many more–and brilliantly.

The play centers around a Brooklyn longshoreman who claims to have Alzheimer’s and therefore is threatening to kill himself. His children wrestle with this decision, and in doing so they debate with their Communist father the relatives merits of the labor movement, God, and, ultimately life itself. Kushner’s skillfully overlapping dialogues and a marvelous set enable all the arguments and counterarguments in Kushner’s considerable mind to tumble out coherently in the play’s 3.5 hours, which never feels overlong. The play is a crash course in everything that has settled onto the tip of American tongues at the moment: how we got ourselves into this economic morass, gay sexuality and acceptance, the nature of compassion and the poor, the effects of organized religion and political movements.

Such dazzling debates, however, come at the expense of the characters who are compelled to enact them, always forcefully, often myopically, and sometimes unbelievably. Toward the end of the second of three acts, the whole thing verges on farce as a light is shined on the peccadillos of the various characters–among others, a burned-out spiritual experimentalist who has intellectualized herself into an existential corner, a gay son who somehow can’t decide whether to stick with a hustler or his blazingly sharp husband, and of course the father who won’t shut up about his various achievements and beliefs despite wanting to end it all.

There may be a reason that such dramatic exercises work best when voiced, as here, by loud-mouthed Italian New Yorkers–no Midwestern family would have gotten much farther than “You want to kill yourself? This isn’t happening” before shipping the old fool off to Shady Pines. Still, Kushner has rooted this play in moments of extreme tenderness, most effectively through the contractor son played by rising local actor Ron Menzel, such that we stick around to the bitter end (and it is a bitter pill). And if those roots are frequently not enough to ground this play in empathy or something like it, the thrill of Kushner’s probing is delightfully dizzying, like having a conversation with the smartest person you know, if not the one you’d call when your own father goes off the deep end.

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