Actually, the title really says it all – The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide To Capitalism And Socialism With A Key To The Scriptures. Pretentious overblown claptrap is what that title suggests and precisely what Michael Boyd’s dull and, for the most part, drably acted production delivers, over three long hours, in spades. Sara Kestelman and Luke Newberry shine but this production is self-indulgent “intellectual” masturbation of the most egregious kind.
It is likely to be a good rule of thumb that if the word inexpugnable appears in the dialogue of play something necessarily pretentious is occurring. So it is with Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide To Capitalism And Socialism With A Key To The Scriptures or iHo (ridiculous acronym but lets run with it because its short) a play that, at least in the hands of Michael Boyd, seems nothing more than a intellectually elite gabfest devoid of much interest, topicality or humanity.
Boyd’s production of Kushner’s 2009 play is now playing at the Hampstead Theatre. iHo takes its title from two other works – George Bernard Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism and Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. Both authors are referred to in the course of the intellectual banter that passes as real life communication in the play. (One character seems to think that Major Barbara is capable of having the same effect as mind altering substances – good grief)
Sprawling over three incredibly long hours, iHo is not in the league of Kushner’s remarkable Angels In America which will be revived by the National Theatre in 2017. It is the kind of play that only has any hope of success in the hands of a first-rate cast. With two exceptions, the luminous Sara Kestelman and the beguiling Luke Newberry (and, in part Tamsin Grieg’s turn as the bisexual Empty) the cast Boyd has here assembled is not up to the task.
These characters carry a serious burden. Their situation and dialogue is absurdly over complicated and indulgently academic. In order for the weighty, prolix text to be conveyed in a comprehensible and intriguing way, the acting needs to be, frankly, remarkable. Here it is not – and nothing about Boyd’s production thrills or excites.
Gus wants to commit suicide having tried and failed the previous year. Clio, his sister, a former Nun and Shining Pather (she loves a grim cult) has been looking after him in the hereditary family brownstone in Brooklyn. Pill, Empty and V, Gus’s adult children, want to ensure their inheritance, Empty especially so.
Pill is infatuated with Eli, a male prostitute, to whom he has paid a lot of money. Pill’s long term partner, Paul, is at breaking point because of Eli. Empty has left her husband, Adam, who still lives in Gus’ basement, for her lover Maeve. Maeve has conceived a child with the help of V’s sperm though not exactly with the V approved delivery mechanism and is heavily pregnant. V is angry and feels inferior; he works with his hands, his siblings are professionals.
The family volcano erupts when Gus confirms he has sold the brownstone. To whom? Why? What is to be done? Secrets and surprises are revealed, casually or cruelly. Why is Clio leaving? Who is Michelle? Who will end up with who? And what is that suitcase doing, buried in the wall?
One of the specific techniques Kushner uses as a device in iHo is babble – he has all the characters speak at once, over and overlapping each other. Voices as polyphonic, overlaid and, largely, incomprehensible. Usually, out of this babble, a single thought emerges. If the cast were especially brilliant and the orchestration of these vocal symphonies more exact, these moments may have been brilliant. But Boyd does not orchestrate them sufficiently tightly and they remain baffling, incoherent and, frankly, boring.
Boyd’s deficiencies do not stop there. Any real sense of love is entirely absent from the performances and, yet, clearly the play deals in love, and love of the many splendoured kind. All types of love are on the table here. Except for Clio’s devotion to the idea of her family and Eli’s tortured commitment to Pill, none of the relationships here seem real or even coherent.
The three siblings don’t come across a siblings or even as people who now each other particularly well. Pill and Paul have no chemistry; it is the same with Empty and both Maeve and Adam. V and Sooze seem like strangers rather than a married couple. Despite much surface angst and wringing of hands, there is little convincing about Pill’s thirst for Eli. There is far too much cold casualness – not nearly enough detail or sincerity to permit the fundamentals of the drama work.
Sara Kestelman is absolutely first-class as the watchful, mostly silent but always switched on Clio. She completely convinces as a reformed Nun and Shining Path adherent, the scars of dogma are deep and clear on her. She is scathingly amusing as well as penetratingly insightful. When she is on stage, it is impossible to focus elsewhere, even when she is not the centre of narrative focus. If every cast member had her focus, skill and comprehension of the demands of the text, iHo would be a very different experience.
Beyond count are the numbers of plays that feature a prostitute with a heart of gold. Rarer are plays that depict prostitution as an educated, thinking person’s occupation. But so it is with iHo. Eli is not your stereotypical rent boy and Luke Newberry’s finely calibrated performance ensures that pain and fortitude and wit are all in equal play. Newberry makes Eli beautiful in body, mind and attitude; it is clear why Pill should fall for him even though Richard Clothier can’t make that work.
David Calder barks and snarls as a cantankerous Gus, but it never convinces that he is the ideologue that Gus should be. Occasionally, his skill bursts through and there are moments when Gus seems real. They are few and far between though. It is the same with Tamsin Grieg. She has moments of candour and explicit understanding of Empty, but there are not enough. The character just makes no sense and motivations and actions are not aligned.
Everyone else is startlingly one-dimensional, if that. The script and direction drown them in unfeeling obscurity. The pretentious dialogue is never assimilated into coherence through character.
Most egregiously, Kestelman and Newberry aside, it is impossible to care about any character. Absent that element of empathy, Kushner’s play, wordy and weighty as it is, can only fail.
Tom Piper’s stark almost impressionistic design does the production no favours either. A whitewashed internal staircase represents the family brownstone, but the absence of the sense of a well-worn well-lived-in home undermines the effectiveness of the play, the battleground of a real home.
The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide To Capitalism And Socialism With A Key To The Scriptures is a mouthful. This production does not reveal whether or not it is a good play. Better direction and better acting will be needed for that.
Sadly, the feeling of disappointment here is inexpungable.