Two Tony Kushner works are smart and satisfying
Somewhere near the midpoint of Tony Kushner's new The Intelligent Homosexual, daughter Empty (Linda Emond) stands confounded over what her retired longshoreman father Gus (Michael Cristofer) has done: meticulously burned away all traces of his life, the papers, the photographs, the documents, everything that would testify to his existence after his demise.
Of course, it doesn't come entirely as a surprise—in the opening scene, Gus gathers Empty, along with sons Vito (Ron Menzel) and Pill (Stephen Spinella) and his sister Bennie (Kathleen Chalfant), in order to gain their approval for his mission to end his life. It's jarring and intense, this chain of events, and the way in which they spiral and recombine represents a work flashed through with greatness and performed with remarkable confidence and grace.
A thorough plot summary would send the cockiest writer at CliffsNotes crying to a psychiatrist. Suffice it to say that, in the course of three acts, matters concern prostitution, a failed doctoral thesis, artificial insemination, and a net of lies, strained bonds, and the disillusion of convictions. There is also, as one might imagine, a great deal of hollering.
It's immensely entertaining, with Kushner's knack for cutting dialogue and hilarious one-liners on outsized display. Steeped in a naturalistic format, the play hinges on the ensemble's work (directed with sparkling clarity by Michael Greif). Here it is stellar, with Cristofer interlacing his character's bellicose rages with a cockeyed grin and Gus's gnawing sense of his life's failings. Emond, as Gus's labor-lawyer daughter, projects vibrancy along with Empty's own ambiguous sense of where things should go next.
Everyone is yearning for something here, whether death's release, or the next good lay, or a way to make the puzzle pieces of life somehow sensibly fit together. Kushner digs deep into the infinite facets of our contemporary lives, our many selves, and the stories we tell to ourselves and to others. Every intelligent mind (homosexual or otherwise) kneels humbled at times before the contradictions in all of us; here Kushner dives into the messy details, extracts the transcendent from the mundane (however extreme at times), and leaves us with the odd, somehow touching suggestion that everything we deal with is a form of currency.
Tiny Kushner, on the other hand, dispenses with notions of naturalism from the get-go. This engagingly cerebral collection of five short plays by Kushner opens on the moon, where a onetime recording star (Valeri Mudek) meets a deposed queen of Albania (Kate Eifrig) in the afterlife. They find little common ground until they burst into song and dance, and the first fifth of the evening is over.
Two plays here occur in the afterlife, and two depict psychoanalysis (with overlap). We have a scene of Nixon's analyst (J.C. Cutler) kvetching with the angel Metatron (Eifrig); in another, Cutler is a jilted patient of his former shrink (Eifrig) begging to be taken back, while the spirits of the pair's lovers (Mudek and Jim Lichtscheidl) hover, conceptually disembodied.
The most satisfying stretch of the show is East Coast Ode to Howard Jarvis: a Little Teleplay in Tiny Monologues, in which Lichtscheidl takes on a dazzling, rapid-fire array of male and female characters, telling a story of tax fraud that builds to more than the apparent sum of its parts.
And that's true of the entire evening. Kushner here is at his most unfettered, his humor and intelligence freed from loyalty to his longer work or the grand, earnest themes that underpin it. It's by no means light, this Tiny collection, but there's a welcome warmth and sense of play that makes one game for the most far-flung scenarios. By the time Laura Bush meets up with ghosts of dead Iraqi children (in the final play), you barely bat an eye.
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