My heart is by dejection, clay
And by self-murder, red.
–John Donne, “A Litany”
Gus’s heart is Red, all right. He’s a 72-year-old Communist Party member, former longshoreman, and union organizer; he’s already tried to kill himself once, and has called his children together to explain his new plan: Sell their Brooklyn brownstone, split the proceeds among the kids, then finish himself off. Tony Kushner’s “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures,” at D.C.’s Jewish Community Center through December 21, is loosely structured around Gus’s kids’ attempts to argue their father (a broken yet indomitable Tom Wiggin) out of suicide.
“Guide” is a soapy, overstuffed play. Kushner’s plays are always intellectual turduckens. This one tries to wring insight and poignancy out of gay babymaking, apophatic theology vs. the social gospel, the housing crash, the Stalin-Hitler pact, the morality of suicide, commodity fetishism, the Shining Path, and the Guaranteed Annual Income—plus musical bedrooms, a Yale-educated hustler, a mysterious locked suitcase, and a giant portrait of Our Lady of Sorrows. Some of this works.
The religious material did the least for me. It felt tacked-on and I didn’t grasp how it connected to the rest of the play’s themes. Maeve Ludens (Lisa Hodsoll), a recovering alcoholic, offers a paint-by-numbers depiction of the religious ecstasy of drunkenness; I didn’t know I was capable of being bored by that subject. I think there’s something going on about the ossification of our deepest longings inside jargon and internecine battles—neo-Platonism vs. Dispensationalism (okay?) as the equivalent of Trotskyites vs. anarcho-syndicalists—but the religious jargon isn’t quite pointed or funny enough for satire. And unfortunately Paul, who spouts a lot of the religious jargon, is an unlikeable and thin character with no redeeming qualities. He’s played at a painfully opera-villain pitch by Michael Anthony Williams. (Paul is here because he’s married to Gus’s son Pil. Why Gus thinks this contemptuous, controlling guy is good for his child is hard to fathom. Maybe if the contempt were underplayed rather than screeched it would work better. As it is, I wanted somebody to hand Pil a flyer for a hotline.)
Kushner at his worst writes mannered melodrama which never quite achieves camp. “The money [I paid for sex] was a prophylaxis, but not against germs. Against–” And there’s this Significant Pause, into which the hustler says, Significantly, “–Love?”
But Kushner at his best can transform seemingly obscure economic debates into heart-pounding, high-stakes drama. The Guaranteed Annual Income first comes up early in the play, and slowly grows in meaning and resonance until it becomes the play’s central metaphor. “The best thing I ever did,” Gus says, remembering the fight for the GAI, “was the worst thing I ever did.” There’s a parallel between the GAI fight and Gus’s planned suicide: Both are rejections of solidarity which leave the younger people to bear the consequences.
The GAI also becomes a vehicle to explore the meaning work should have in our lives and self-concept. For the Communist man is always and only “Homo Faber, Man the Maker,” man the worker; both communism and capitalism reduce us to our economic productivity. There are shades here of Tom Stoppard’s bourgeois Communist in “Rock ‘n’ Roll”: “Work does all the work!” But here, unlike in Stoppard’s play, even music mostly exists to serve the cause. Kushner draws out the limits and anxieties of this view of work: Who are you when you can’t work hard anymore? Who are you when you don’t have to work, when you’re no longer under terrible economic pressure which gets you up in the morning even as it terrifies you? Who are you when all your work seems pointless, when you work your whole life and don’t seem to have made anything?
Gus’s other son says, “I’ve always wanted to ask you. In 1975, when you won the GAI, you must have felt free of the clock.”
But Gus nods and muses, with an unexpected sorrow, “Workers who don’t have to work.”
“Guide” ends with one of those overused theater endings, suspended before the final decision. The opening of the suitcase doesn’t have quite the impact one might hope for. Several of the themes—life after death, the different ways we try to control time and are defeated by it, the way a longing for home can become a paralyzing longing for stasis, what money changes about human relationships—don’t get a full workout. But to the extent that this play has a final message, it’s a powerful one: Human life is a long defeat, but it’s better to lose together.
Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of the recently-released book Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith.