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Review: The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide Is Hard, Rewarding Work

Emily Paton Davies and Lawrence Hecht.
Emily Paton Davies and Lawrence Hecht.
Courtesy of Curious Theatre Company

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures is one huge, nourishing and gut-punching wallop of an evening. Author Tony Kushner’s brilliant Angels in America is even longer at roughly seven hours, but most companies show it in two parts. Curious Theatre Company is presenting his Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide in an almost-four-hour gulp — longer, with the two intermissions.
The plot concerns Gus, a onetime longshoreman and union organizer, now retired, who says he has Alzheimer’s and is contemplating suicide. Gus has three children: labor attorney Empty, his quarrelsome daughter who’s determined to keep him alive; weak-willed son Pill, living with longtime partner Paul but in love with Eli, a rent boy; and Vito, a genuine working stiff.

Interesting as they are, the main characters are fairly unpleasant. If you’ve ever been part of the left, you recognize Gus, a formidable organizer and idealist who stiffens into self-righteous didacticism when faced with human need. He’s a terrible father, and his children aren’t very nice, either. Director Chip Walton was lucky to get Lawrence Hecht, with his authoritative presence and compelling voice, for the role of Gus. Dee Covington is a strong and appropriately unpleasant Empty; Vito, in an electrifying performance by Justin Walvoord, has an over-the-top temper. And then there’s Pill: I’m making a cheap pun here, but he is one. Of all the scenes in the play, I found those involving Pill (Matthew Schneck), Paul (Kirkaldy Myers) and Eli (Luke Sorge) the most irritating, despite a terrific early discussion between Pill and Eli regarding what the commodification of Eli’s body signifies about labor. This is not because Schneck, Myers and Sorge don’t turn in fine performances; they do. It’s because Paul is so needy that you can’t figure out why the other two love him, and as a result, the three men’s interchanges feel ungrounded. They’re also conducted at a high pitch of hysteria.

There are some absolutely fascinating lesser characters. Gus’s sister Clio — in a lovely, quietly controlled performance by Anne Oberbroeckling — has been a nun and also a member of the Shining Path, a guerrilla group in Peru guilty of appalling atrocities (as was the government they opposed). Maeve, Empty’s lover, is heavily pregnant by Vito, who was meant to just donate sperm but made his contribution more personally. She’s brainy, pretentious and floridly dramatic — and, as played by Karen Slack, the most vivid presence of the evening. Empty, more dedicated to her politics than her partner, ignores her. Shelle is a very small role, beautifully played by the indispensable Emily Paton Davies; she’s a sad, gentle young woman who comes to teach Gus how to commit suicide.

The talk throughout is funny, discursive, unexpected and heady-intelligent, but it’s impossible to take in the many historical digressions in one sitting. Too, Kushner employs a technique I remember being applauded years ago when Lanford Wilson used it in The Hot L Baltimore: people talking in unison, several conversations overlapping or happening contrapuntally. At times here, the entire cast is yelling at once and you can’t make out a word, which is interesting, because it’s indicative both of the tensions within the family and the cacophony of ideas and ideals roiling our politics — but it also goes on for far too long.

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The production is first-rate, however: Markas Henry’s set is killer, and it’s a tribute to Curious that the company is mounting this important and thought-provoking regional premiere, the first production with the finished script — and a tribute, too, to the intelligence and dedication of the audience Curious has cultivated. I loved the scope and ambition of The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide, and the language that makes you want to acquire the script and, having read it cover to cover, watch the play again. In an era when — as Gus laments — working people seem to have lost all power, it says so much about the now-overlooked history of labor and the once prevalent dream of equality, and says it with hard-eyed wisdom rather than dreamy romanticism.

But even though huge chunks of this show held me absolutely spellbound, I have to admit that by the last couple of scenes I was willing Gus to please, please stop talking and just off himself.

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures, presented by Curious Theatre Company through April 15, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, curioustheatre.org.

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