Review by Tulis McCall
First of all kudos to Kushner for putting this cornucopia of subject matter on the table: gay people, labor law ideals, same sex marriage, love, prostitution, family secrets and betrayals. Everything gets equal billing with this writer – and that is a blessed relief.
Kushner’s willingness to include everything, in this case, also becomes an enormous obstacle. This is a play with gay characters that is not about gay themes. It is a play with labor leaders that is not about labor. It is a play with a nun that is not about the church.
So what the heck is it about? Oh. Right. The story is this: Gus Marcantonio (Michael Christofer), a retired longshoreman and union activist, cousin to the real Vito Marcantonio who was a left-wing Representative from East Harlem, wants to kill himself. His life is a disappointment because the things for which he fought never came to fruition. His three children, their significant others and his sister don’t want him to die.
And for over three hours we watch as Tony Kushner does everything but address the subject in a meaningful way. We see one son (Stephen Spinella) torn between Eli (Michael Esper) who is a male prostitute and his own husband, Paul (K. Todd Freeman). We see Gus’s daughter, Empty (no I am not kidding) played by Linda Emond, take on the mantle of union work as a labor lawyer. She is also about to become a mother because her partner Maeve (Danielle Skrasstad) is pregnant, and not just with any old baby. Maeve is going to have a baby fathered by Empty’s younger brother V. In addition, Empty’s ex-husband, Adam (Matt Servitto) is living in the basement apartment of this old brownstone because he hasn’t figured out where else he can live since the marriage ended. And finally there is Clio, (Brenda Wehle) who is a nun sort of fallen off the path. She has been living at the house “watching” Gus for some time now, and she is ready to break out.
And did I mention the mysterious box found buried in the dining room wall?
These are the stories that unfold, often with overlapping dialogue that is initially clever, but over time merely takes up space. This causes the actors to lose focus, because there is only so much listening while talking you can do onstage before the soufflé collapses. And in the mean time, our pal Gus is languishing in the background waiting for someone to give him permission to off himself.
Here is what we never discover: why doesn’t Gus just take care of this himself? Why are we sitting through this litany of family factoids only to get to the inevitable conclusion that this suicide will happen eventually?
The very best scenes, and there are a few, are the one-on-one scenes between Gus and his children. We see flashes of color and vibrance that are absent in the rest of the play, and this is not because the actors are not trying. This is a rich acting pool hobbled by a weak script. If Kushner had approached the subject of suicide and kept his focus on Gus and his children, the play would be completed in under 90 minutes.
As it is this play, like its title, is obscure, over written and self indulgent. Whatever it is Tony Kushner is trying to tell us he either delivers with a bludgeon or hides under the proverbial bushel. Either way, the message is not delivered, and it is rough going for the audience.