Sizzling family drama enlivens Berkeley Rep
To stick around or to off yourself? Hamlet expressed the quandary best: “To be or not to be,” but other writers have waxed eloquent on the subject, notably Samuel Beckett in Waiting for Godot, and Albert Camus, who thought it was the most important issue we face.
Suicide, that is.
If we have the courage to face it at all.
Award-winning playwright, Tony Kushner, has the courage to face it, and he does so with richly comic effect in The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, now at Berkeley Rep. Yes, that’s really the title of Kushner’s play, and, yes, it really is a comedy, despite the lure of easeful death that sets its action in motion.
And what action it is, raucous and explosive! It happens, mostly, in a big Brooklyn brownstone in 2007, home for generations to the Italian-American Marcantonio family. Such is the effect of time and the American economy, which has not yet taken a nosedive, that this legacy of its leftist, blue-collar owner is now worth upward of four K. That owner, the tribe’s 72-year-old patriarch, Gus Marcantonio, is convinced he has Alzheimer’s disease. Unwilling to stick around to face its consequences, he plans to kill himself. He tried a year ago but failed; now he’s at it again. His wife is deceased, so he’s announced his intent to what’s left of his family: his sister Clio, and his three grown children, sons Pill and Vito, and daughter Empty (yes, Empty).
Can they talk him out of it?
Another question might be: Should they bother to try? In the interests of keeping his play humming, Kushner daren’t give voice to that query, so hum his play does, with soaring, operatic effect. The Marcantonio clan turns out to be a model of dysfunction. A retired longshoreman and dedicated leftist, Gus is clenched and bitter over a compromise he made in his labor organizing past. His cryptic sister, Clio, is a former nun and present day Maoist who had a flirtation with the Shining Path. Two of his kids, high school teacher Pill and labor lawyer Empty, are gay, each hauling a couple of lovers in tow. Second son, Vito, a handyman, feels left out of things, but he isn’t so left out that he couldn’t inseminate Empty’s lover, Maeve, who is big with his and his sister’s child. Did I mention that Empty is sleeping with her ex-husband? Or that Pill borrowed thirty thousand dollars from her to buy the services of a young hustler named Eli who has decided he loves Pill, to the disgust of Pill’s elegantly mouthy husband, Paul? As for that four-K brownstone in which family and friends go at one another for more than three hours, Gus wants to sell it, and it turns out to be Empty’s ex-husband, Adam, who is helping him find a buyer.
There are more knots to the tangle, but the ones I’ve detailed should be enough to suggest the play’s central focus: a family facing its past and present and spectacularly falling apart as it does. This being a Tony Kushner conceit, there’s a wealth of philosophical byplay, about capitalism. socialism and much more, expressed in outpourings of sizzlingly colloquial language. Sometimes half a dozen or more characters go at one another all at once. These moments might remind you of a Robert Altman movie, though the tone is different, not dreamily overheard but in-your-face. As you laugh, you’re aware that it’s a stunt, and at these and other times you may not be quite sure what Kushner is about.
No matter. Homosexual’s Guide is a heady experience, and despite it’s length, I was fascinated throughout. Tony Taccone’s direction is brisk and tight, and every member of his cast delivers: Mark Margolis as tough, tormented Gus, and Deirdre Lovejoy (Empty), Lou Libertore (Pill), Randy Danson (Clio), Joseph J. Parks (Vito), Tyrone Mitchell Henderson (Paul), Anthony Fusco (Adam), Liz Wisan (Maeve), Robynn Rodriguez (Shelle), and Tina Chilip (Snooze).
The production’s support team adds to its success: Christopher Barecca (set), Meg Neville (costumes), Alexander V. Nichols (lighting), and Jake Rodriguez (sound).
The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures plays at the Roda Theater until June 22nd. Hershey Felder, who recently played George Gershwin, returns as Leonard Bernstein in Maestro on June 5th. The Rep’s upcoming 2014-15 season opens in September with An Audience with Meow Meow. Later productions feature the talents of Kathleen Turner, Dominique Serrand, Tarell Alvin McCraney. For tickets/information call 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.