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Tony Kushner's Religion and Politics: An Intelligent Guide

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Congratulations to Tony Kushner on the occasion of receiving an honorary doctorate from the City University of New York after a challenge from groups who miss the point of Kushner's impressive contribution to American arts and letters. His views on Middle East politics, however they reflect on what is good for the Jews, should be taken as a point of debate, in the same way that his literature poses thoughtful consideration of what it means to be alive today. Fortunately, his ample gifts are evident in his new play.

Tony Kushner's Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at the Public Theater, ably directed by Michael Greif, is a multi-tiered homage to George Bernard Shaw and Anton Chekhov, which is to say that it has the ambition and grand dimension (weighing in at nearly four hours) of the playwright's superb Angels in America, minus the historical figures and supernatural. Kushner turns his attention domestic.

Situated mostly in a Carroll Gardens brownstone, members of the Marcantonio family, headed by Michael Cristofer, the father, Gus, who brings his family together to announce his decision to die. The fine ensemble features Stephen Spinella, Linda Emond, Steven Pasquale, Brenda Wehle, Danielle Skraastad, Matt Servitto, Hettienne Park, Michael Esper, K. Todd Freeman and Molly Price characters who spar on many subjects-religion, real estate, fidelity, not to mention Marxism, Maoism, maternity -- as suggested by the epic-length title, but mainly, should they let the patriarch go ahead with his suicide, or have him committed?

So packed is this tragicomedy of ideas that I am not yet over its delirious seriousness: What can you expect when characters are named Pill (short for Pier Luigi), Empty (as in M. T. for Mother Theresa), and Sooze? Or when everyone on stage talks at once, rapid fire, idea obsessed, passionate? Or, on a question of what will happen to the house, the mystery of having sold off the homestead, one character screams out, "I bought the Cherry Orchard!"

To tease out one strand of discourse, the scenes between Pill (Spinella) and his lover Eli (Esper) supply eye candy and an inkling of a larger conversation: As these characters talk about love, the commerce of which also involves loyalty, honesty, and power, their relationship reveals a complex blend of cruelty and genuine tenderness. One hustles while the other gets off on paying for sex. Sounds like they are made for each other, right? Who is to say in matters of the heart or family, what makes the center hold? As in Chekhov, where transformations arrive slowly to the provinces, modernity comes to the borough of Brooklyn.

This post also appears on Gossip Central.