Okay, guys: I try all of the time to give you reviews that let you know how YOU would feel if you just grabbed a ticket and headed to the theater tonight. But I have to preface this: I’ve seen nearly every major play that Tony Kushner has written, and I do not come at this play without baggage. I am going to dissect IHo (full title THE INTELLIGENT HOMOSEXUAL’S GUIDE TO CAPITALISM AND SOCIALISM WITH A KEY TO THE SCRIPTURES, currently playing at the Hampstead theater) from my particular point of view: as a Kushner enthusiast, as an American, as a small S socialist (I don’t like political parties because I am incapable of toeing any “party line”), as someone who’s been writing plays for three years and has spent the last ten seeing 150 or more plays a year. This review is totally contaminated with my experience and with everything my mind could pull up.
Non-spoilery mini-review: IHo is a flawed work exploring a subculture of Americans (View from the Bridge forty years later) with characters that are so well written they transcend the material. David Calder as patriarch Gus Marcantonio inhabits a man whose influence over his family operates at a near-operatic, Lear-like level of epic, while still being completely believable; Tamsin Grieg, as his daughter, Empty (M. T. Marcantonio) starts from a position of softness and inaccessibility to finish at a point of utter collapse, taking us on a completely believable emotional journey of near-madness, rage, and shock that left me no longer in doubt of why this top shelf actress took a role in a non-West End venue. But their accomplishments as actors and as part of a story-delivering unit are buried beneath a script that is sloppy, overegged, and structurally deficient. This is not a masterwork, despite having a story and characters that can carry it, and at three hours it outstays its welcome by at least 45 minutes. But it may yet redeem itself … in some other form. For now, go see it if you like the author, the subject, or the performers, but be warned the whole is sadly less than the sum of the parts, and you will be heading home at 10:30 most nights.
Now, on with the spoilers. You have been warned.
So, this play, it’s about a family led by a dedicated union organizer and communist (doubtlessly voting Democrat, though) who has decided that he wants to commit suicide and has gathered his adult children to discuss his decision some months after attempting to off himself (unsuccessfully, yet more than enough to traumatize youngest son V/ito – Lex Shrapnel – who had to clean up all of the blood). His three children have all generally followed Dad down the path of socialism, with his bisexual daughter taking up labor law, and his older gay son Pill waving the red flag while teaching high school history (oddly her sexuality matters more to the plot than Pill’s does but hurray for non-bi-invisibility in the theater). Both of the older kids seem to have given up on higher aspirations due to not wanting to break class solidarity; meanwhile the youngest son has chosen a fairly normal life (wife, kids and doing construction work) and while he seems to not embrace socialism, he’s still a huge support to his dad. And just to make everything a bit more messy, Mr. Marcantonio Senior has decided to sell the house for some huge some of money and divide the money amongst his kids … leaving him free to die. So: living dad or giant pile of money? And had dad maybe promised the house to the youngest son? And how does the sister who was a nun and then a member of the Shining Path fit in to all this?
But no, there’s more. Empty is having a baby with her wife, with her youngest brother as the father; older son Pill Marcantonio (Richard Clothier) is having some kind of crisis with his marriage to academic Paul Davis (Rhashan Stone) triggered by his affair with rentboy Eli (Luke Newberry) – providing opportunities to chat about the commodification of sex in the communist economy in an oddly hot way; and there is a MYSTERIOUS SUITCASE that appears toward the end of act two without anyone bothering to open it.
HAVE YOU HAD ENOUGH YET? Well, I’d guess not, because there are plenty of extra plot twists involving sex, sex, more sex, babies, abandonment, money for sex, guilt, betrayal, and money. And capitalism. And some history of the labor movement in America. And if THAT wasn’t enough there are at least two scenes where about five to eight people are all talking over each other and frustratingly NONE OF THEM IS SAYING ANYTHING VERY INTERESTING. I mean, hey, I understand this is how real people talk, but the point of writing a play is not to create an extraordinarily realistic family argument, it’s to make a good play. And let’s be clear, the sex kind of helps make that happen, but there’s too much of it.
And, well, actually, there’s just too much of everything. I began to think there were actually too many characters. The ex-nun didn’t add much to the story, and, while Eli and Pill’s conversations about love and loneliness and trying to connect rang very true to me, Pill’s husband seemed a completely unimportant and ill-fleshed out character and I came to the end of the play thinking that actually it would be better if all three of them went as they didn’t really move the narrative forward or add anything necessary to the plot. I began to wonder if Kushner simply couldn’t axe them because they were his “ins” to the narrative; but given how disposable the Pill storyline was, I feel like just two siblings would have made so much more sense, and probably the whole baby plot could go too.
Frustratingly, the third act had a series of scenes that seemed highly necessary (mostly) but didn’t gel, and I got the feeling that maybe these were the things that Kushner constructed his story around, but then was unable to smoothly work back into the narrative. And this is why I feel like this play is interesting but flawed. It seems like a work in progress; it needs lots of cutting and it has too much that does not cohere. We get to enjoy some stupendous performances, and there are some good characters in there, but … it needs scissors. And then, maybe, we can have a great play. Right now, it’s interesting, but not enough for the investment in time. With luck he’ll rethink what he’s doing, ditch most of the noisy arguments, give up on the Macguffin, and then it’ll transfer and be a much better show.
(This is a review for a performance that took place on on Tuesday, November 8th, 2016. It continues through November 26th.)
Tags: David Calder, Hampstead Theater, Hampstead Theatre, IHo, Lex Shrapnel, Luke Newberry, Rhashan Stone, Richard Clothier, Tamsin Grieg, THE INTELLIGENT HOMOSEXUAL'S GUIDE TO CAPITALISM AND SOCIALISM WITH A KEY TO THE SCRIPTURES OR IHO, Tony Kushner