Why should you be rushing down to The Public Theater in New York to bear witness to Tony Kushner’s roaring new play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures? Not just because iHomo offers the chance to banquet on rich and delectable passions and ideas, washed down with lashings of wit—what Kushner play doesn’t do that? Not just because it’s the only play this season in which you’ll hear a theologian, a sex worker and a real estate lawyer take rueful measure of the intimate brutalities their respective objects of desire have committed against them. Not just because it’s the only play in which you’ll see Garibaldi’s head used as a sledgehammer. Go because at a time when citizens feel trapped in the eternal present of the twenty-four-hour news cycle, iHomo’s big argumentative poetry screams out that history matters.
iHomo is a hippodrome of galloping contradictions—erotic, spiritual, ideological. Lifelong communist Gus Marcantonio, a 75-year-old retired longshoreman living in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, has convened his sister, Clio, and his three adult children for a vote on whether he should commit suicide—but first he wants to sell his brownstone before the housing market gets worse. Clio left a convent of contemplative nuns in Peru to join Andes Maoists on guerrilla campaigns and now ministers to the poor in a New Jersey housing project. Gus’s daughter, Empty, is a principled labor lawyer who secretly wants to abandon her wife, Maeve, a pregnant theologian about to go into labor herself. His son Pill can’t finish a labor-history dissertation begun more than two decades ago and cheats on his husband, Paul (another theologian, but an atheist one), by squandering a small fortune of his sister’s savings to buy assignations with Eli, a Yale-alum hustler. His building-contractor youngest son V, meets Gus’s torrents of Marxist theory with law-and-order exasperation, yet looks after the old man’s material needs with a studiously invisible tenderness.
iHomo lives at the intersection of the garrulous family dramas of Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller and the audacious societal problem plays of George Bernard Shaw and Henrik Ibsen. The Marcantonios’ brownstone, purchased in the 1920s with immigrant sweat, is densely packed with the books, music and memories of the intense working-class autodidacts who have called it home. Memories of a more baleful kind now devour Gus’s days: though he claims he’s doing it because of Alzheimer’s, Gus means his suicide to be a ticket out of a secret shame that mocks his proletarian values.
Sex, however, is also conveniently located at that intersection of property and memory. For the passionate mortals in iHomo, sex is the site at which the contradictions between public avowals and private yearnings are sharpest. As with labor unions, the sexual unions these characters attempt reckon with questions of belonging, of who owns what, of who commodifies whom, of which side are you on. Any embrace of another with a dream of mutual transformation may run you the risk of undermining everything you stand for.
Without ever turning into a sentimental left-wing pageant, iHomo lovingly and unsparingly illuminates immigrant and labor radicalism and makes art of sectarian dreams and failures, linking Kushner’s protagonists to a long line of American visionary communities (even Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science get a nod). iHomo is opening in New York at a moment when the kind of labor struggle that animates the Marcantonio family is playing out in Wisconsin and across the country; though set in 2007, Kushner’s play arrives in the middle of a Democratic presidency in which anyone who hopes for social justice inevitably must metabolize a daily dose of disappointment over the constricted terms of debate—whether over the budget, Guantánamo or war. One of the most remarkable things about iHomo’s loudmouthed, fallible characters is that, despite their proclivity for hair-trigger denunciations, they share a sense of belonging to one another that is more than a Godot-style clinging to company in hopes of warding off misery. iHomo’s fragile community may feel built on fraught history and beautiful theories, but it is one whose heart may still contain enough filaments of joy and humor to light the way to hope again.
Will the kind of theater reviewer who gets sulky at hearing the C-word—communism—dismiss iHomo with a petulant wave of the hand? Herman Melville, one of Kushner’s literary gods, once wrote that “There are hardly five critics in America; and several of them are asleep.” Even if Melville’s head count is still accurate, the wide-awake ones should relish that rarest of theater delights—a big, noisy, sexy play in which argument is hot and throbbing.