Robert Browning put it well when he wrote in Andrea del Sarto, "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" Whether or not it crossed his mind that the remark could come to serve as a definition for all surpassing artistic endeavors, we'll never know. But it's certainly an apt description of Tony Kushner's ambitions.
For sure, Kushner's Angels in America -- which, as a matter of pertinent fact, includes at least one scene in heaven -- is an example of reach exceeding grasp in the most breathtaking way. The acclaimed playwright reaches for much that eludes his grasp -- the seemingly never-concluded rewrites notwithstanding -- in both the Millennium Approaches half and the Perestroika half. Yet, the very reaching as well as what in the unruly work is firmly grasped earns the magnum opus its unarguable place as the best American play of the 1990s.
Not everything the brilliantly talented, usually politically-and socially-engaged Kushner reaches towards turns out as well. Although some observers rate A Bright Room Called Day highly, I thought it unenlighteningly pretentious and left at the delayed intermission. Slavs! had minimal impact for me, and although in Home/Kabul, the segment preceding the virgule is inspired, the lengthier portion following that slash, he has yet to get right. For Caroline, or Change, the premise and libretto are exhilarating, although the go at lyric-writing is uneven.
Which brings us to The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures at the Public Theater, and to what may emerge as the best play of the 21-century's second decade. Again, Kushner's long-armed reach exceeds his grasp. (The pre-opening word was that he was handing director Michael Greif and the 11-strong ensemble rewrites on something of a daily basis -- and this after a try-out run at Minneapolis's Guthrie Theater.) Again, watching him make that reach and not grabbing firm hold of everything he attempts to catch is -- as it was with Angels in America -- thrilling to experience.
A succinct description of Guide? (Let's abbreviate the tongue-twisting title for the sake of space and also while recognizing that though Kushner may have his tongue in his cheek with the wordy moniker, it's also a reminder of his often compulsive pretensions.)
The drama might be categorized as a dysfunctional family drama -- that old American staple -- but only if the same can be said of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night or Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? That's right, it's the latest in a welcome line of apotheoses of dysfunctional family dramas.
Those dysfunctioning here begin with patriarch and labor-organizing longshoreman Gus Marcantonio (Michael Cristofer), who's announcing his plan for committing suicide to his immediate co-dysfunctioneers -- decreasingly patient sister and former nun Clio (Brenda Wehle), homosexual elder son Pill (Stephen Spinella), younger married son V (Steven Pasquale) and labor-lawyer daughter Empty (Linda Emond). Gus's combustible info is relayed in their unmodernized Sunnyside, Brooklyn home, an instantly convincing set -- as are subsequent other shifting locations -- by Mark Wendland.
Also tossing in their molten two-cents-a-piece during the 48-plus argument-riddled hours the action covers are Pill's 26-year-long African-American lover and philosophy teacher Paul (K. Todd Freeman), Pill's Yale graduate prostitute passion Eli (Michael Esper), Empty's ex-husband and lawyer-downstairs Adam (Matt Servitto), Empty's pregnant girlfriend (Danielle Skraastad), V's Korean-American wife Sooze (Hettiene Park) and, eventually, Shelle (Molly Price), whose visit is due to a virtually fail-safe suicide method she mastered when participating at the death of her amyotrophic-lateral-sclerosis-afflicted husband.
Gus's inflexible conviction that life is no longer worth living since his Communist beliefs no longer have shelf-life is at odds with the love-hate relationship he has with his children, with what they have with him and with each other. The debates that flare into regularly over-lapping verbal -- and even the occasional physical -- conflicts are alternated with Pill's distracting passion for Eli (named for Eli Yale as a Kushner in-joke?) over nearly four hours (including two intermissions).
As the confrontations unfold -- including a muscularly poignant Gus-Pill tete-a-tete -- Kushner not only reflects (if reflection is the right designation for the inflammatory exchanges) on the failures of capitalism and socialism (the play's title comes from a dissertation Pill is still composing after 34 years' toiling), the difficulty of homosexual monogamy and the pain its breach inflicts (echoing one of the significant Angels in America themes), frequent human exchanges like compromise and betrayal, and familial affection, a commodity that seems the object of Kushner's unspoken prayer.
Because of the sheer breadth of his dramatizing skills, Kushner gives a director and cast myriad challenges -- most of which are germane to his purpose. But not all. For instance, the scenes during which Pill dallies with Eli carry on longer than necessary. Moreover, why does Eli have to be a Yale man? Does everyone in the play need an implied high IQ to deliver the spell-bindingly weighty dialogue? Why the names Pill and Empty -- which are short for, respectively, Pierluigi and Maria Teresa, or M. T.? The weird, even off-putting handles suggest some metaphorical point never made. Then there's the unnecessarily ambiguous denouement that'll set audiences debating.
Moreover and as the Marcantonios et al are what a 12-stepper might term "rage-aholics," Kushner may have requested that they constantly talk over each other -- as rage-aholics would be prone to do. Maybe it's director Greif's idea. Whichever, the conceit is used excessively -- a problem when Kushner's dialogue strikes audiences as so rich they want to hear it all but, frustratingly, miss too much. This is especially disconcerting when Kushner's multi-layered text is delivered by an accomplished cast boasting no first among equals.
It's curious that in mid-career Kushner has turned to something so conventional on its surface -- and beneath it. Under a Chekhovian influence, he even has lawyer-tenant Adam compare himself to a character in The Cherry Orchard. Yes, Kushner -- writing about workers and "workers" in both the Chekhovian and Marxist sense -- has produced a play also reminiscent of Arthur Miller at the top of his form, a play about which many ticket buyers will conclude he's equaled Miller's best.