Eye on Theatre: Highfalutin Histrionics By John Simon

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Simon_John Intelligent Homo The Intelligent Homosexual‭’‬s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures‭—‬not since the movies of Lina Wertmulller have we had titles this long,‭ ‬but hers at least described the matter at hand.‭ ‬In Tony Kushner‭’‬s new‭ (‬well,‭ ‬fairly new,‭ ‬it‭’‬s been kicking around for a while‭) ‬play the title seems to have an independent life of its own‭; ‬it certainly isn‭’‬t a guide or key to anything.‭ ‬Its first part derives from Bernard Shaw‭; ‬its second from Mary Baker Eddy,‭ ‬a morganatic‭ ‬coupling for sure.‭

Kushners1 The protagonist is‭ ‬72-year-old Augusto Giuseppe Garibaldi‭ (“‬Gus‭”‬) Marcantonio,‭ ‬a retired longshoreman and lifelong member of the American Communist Party,‭ ‬whose unusual avocation is‭  ‬translating Horace,‭ ‬more specifically Epistle‭ ‬16‭ ‬of Book One of‭ ‬The Epistles.‭ ‬He seems to have taught himself Latin,‭ ‬though he uses the bilingual edition of the Loeb Classics.‭ ‬But that poem has scant bearing on the play‭’‬s title or content‭; ‬it is merely the title of an unlikely doctoral dissertation by Gus‭’‬s‭ ‬52-year-old high-school history teacher elder son,‭ ‬Pill.

Pill‭ (‬deriving from PierLuigi,‭ ‬i.e.,‭ ‬PL‭) ‬is married to Paul Cedric Hall,‭ ‬the‭ ‬47‭ ‬black lecturer in theology,‭ ‬currently visiting at the University of Minnesota.‭ ‬But the twenty-odd-year-old marriage is‭ ‬threatened by Pill‭’‬s infatuation with Eli Wolcott,‭ ‬a homosexual hustler in his mid-twenties.‭ ‬Pill‭’‬s sibling,‭ ‬Empty‭ (‬from the MT in Maria Teresa‭) ‬is a former nurse turned labor lawyer,‭ ‬living with Maeve Ludens‭  (‬I guess derived from the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga‭’‬s‭ ‬Homo Ludens‭) ‬40,‭ ‬a doctor of theology,‭ ‬and former student of Paul‭’‬s.

Kushner2 Also around in this Brooklyn family house are Clio Annunziata,‭ ‬former Carmelite nun and subsequent member of a Latin American murderous rebel group,‭ ‬referred to as Zeeco(for Zia Clio‭)‬,‭ ‬who makes sporadic tart comments on the proceedings.‭; ‬and Gus‭’‬s youngest,‭ ‬thirty-something Vito,‭ ‬who doesn‭’‬t have a funny name but does have three nicknames:‭ ‬Vic,‭ ‬Vinnie and,‭ ‬most often,‭ ‬V‭)‬.‭ ‬He is married to Sooze Moon,‭ ‬a Korean American likewise in her early thirties.‭ ‬But at Empty‭’‬s request,‭ ‬he has impregnated the now pregnant Maeve t provide progeny for the lesbian lovers.‭ ‬Living in the basement apartment is Adam Butler,‭ ‬who seems to be negotiating sale of the house‭ (‬to himself,‭ ‬as it turns out‭) ‬that should have been bequeathed to the Marcantonio offspring‭; ‬he is the ex-husband of Empty,‭ ‬who,‭ ‬despite her lesbianism,‭ ‬occasionally descends to sleep with him.

Kushner3 A rather incongruous bunch,‭ ‬this,‭ ‬whom Kushner has very frequently talking simultaneously,‭ ‬making sure that we cannot understand what any of them is saying‭—‬not even,‭ ‬or especially,‭ ‬when they shout,‭ ‬as they frequently do.‭ ‬But there is also much needless repetition or stammering,‭ ‬also incomplete sentences,‭ ‬non sequiturs,‭ ‬shuttling between the‭ ‬irrelevant and the incomprehensible.‭ ‬One wishes that the entire play were in simultaneous talk,‭ ‬making it half its totally needless length.‭ ‬And thus without making the total illogic of it all so salient.

In the space allotted to me,‭ ‬I could not begin to list all the things that make no sense‭ whatsoever,‭ ‬so let me go on to the other problems.‭ ‬Director Michael Greif‭’‬s casting is inept.‭ ‬Of Gus‭’‬s three children,‭ ‬only Steven Pasquale,‭ ‬Vito,‭ ‬looks right.‭ ‬Steven Spinella‭ (‬Pill‭) ‬and Linda Emond‭ (‬Empty‭) ‬manage to look the wrong ages,‭ ‬and none of them looks kin to the others,‭ ‬even though they are good actors.

Michael Procacino,‭ ‬not a bad actor in the right part,‭ ‬is much too charmless as Gus,‭ ‬and there is an annoying monotony in his speech and gestures.‭ ‬Danielle Skkraastad,‭ ‬as the doctor of theology Maeve,‭ ‬comes across as a garrulous fishwife.‭ ‬As Adam,‭ ‬Matt Servittore is too unappealing even for a heterosexual spouse,‭ ‬much less for a lesbian one,‭ ‬to seek him out for sex.‭ ‬Michael Esper,‭ ‬Eli,‭ ‬lacks the great attractiveness continually attributed to him.‭ ‬As Paul,‭ ‬K.‭ ‬Todd Freeman is much too smug and uneducated-sounding for a distinguished professor or even for Pill‭’‬s devotion.‭ ‬And as Sooze,‭ ‬Hettienne Park,‭ ‬proves inadequate even for a short,‭ ‬simple part,‭ ‬having no range‭ ‬whatever.‭ ‬Steven Pascale rises beautifully above his humdrum role as V.,‭ ‬Brenda Wehle is almost as persuasive in the unlikely role of Clio,‭ ‬and Molly Price is fine in the small part of an expert on suicide coaching Gus.‭ ‬But is that enough‭?

Besides all that is incredible here,‭ ‬there is also dishonesty.‭ ‬Much is made in the play of Gus‭’‬s Communism,‭ ‬but in the title,‭ ‬where Communism might prove to have B.O.‭ ‬at the box office,‭ ‬we get Socialism instead.‭ ‬The flight to Minneapolis as a safe place makes sense only‭ ‬as flattery of the Guthrie Theater of Minnesota,‭ ‬which was first to fall for this mess of a play.‭ ‬But I am confident that other theaters,‭ ‬reviewers,‭ ‬and audiences will prove just as gullible.

I have no doubt either that people will impute the disapproval of this review to my alleged homophobia vented on a homosexual playwright.‭ ‬That is ‬utter nonsense‭—‬some of my favorite dramatists,‭ ‬e.g.,‭ ‬Tennessee Williams,‭ ‬Lanford Wilson,‭ ‬Terence Rattigan and Jean Cocteau,‭ ‬etc.‭ ‬were homosexuals,‭ ‬and I even liked parts of‭   ‬Kushner‭’‬s‭ ‬Angels in America,‭ ‬a considerably better play.

Which brings me to the problem with the prevailing American mentality.‭ ‬It is so slavishly success-oriented that,‭ ‬once someone had a hit,‭ ‬as Kushner had with‭  Angels,‭ ‬he can blithely coast along on that indefinitely.‭ ‬Everything thereafter,‭ ‬even detritus like his current offering,‭ ‬will be hailed as a masterpiece.‭ ‬And as for the play‭’‬s alleged guide to the scriptures,‭ ‬that won‭’‬t wash either.‭ ‬Doesn‭’‬t the Bible condemn Onan for spilling his seed on the ground‭?

Photography by and courtesy of Joan Marcus.

John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review,New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review and Washington Post. He has written profiles for Vogue, Town and Country, Departures and Connoisseur and produced 17 books of collected writings. Mr. Simon holds a  PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College.

To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.

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eHeziEye on Theatre: Highfalutin Histrionics By John Simon

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