Family Squabbles and Trade Unionism
by Tony Kushner
directed by Michael Boyd
Tony Kushner's first play at the Hampstead Theatre since Slavs! is a cacophony of ideas with several dramatic high points, but the action is spread too thinly over three and a half hours with two intervals. This was too much for several people sitting near me who made it through the first two parts but did not return to their seats after the second interval. They missed out because the ending brings closure of a sort (but in no way final) to a play whose great themes - politics, human idealism and failure, family squabbles - can never be neatly resolved.
It's important to judge Michael Boyd's impressive production with fine acting separately from Kushner's play, repeatedly revised since it was first performed in 2009 in Minneapolis's Guthrie Theater. It should be edited some more, ideally down to a couple of hours. There are many moments of genius and some great lines ("it's complicated. Google it" is Kushner at his pithy, satirical best, for example, and wittily encapsulates his subject matter's complexity). The most thrilling scenes of what one might call 'pure Kushner' are when the characters all scream at each other in several different arguments simultaneously, and occasionally lash out. I'd imagine that clashes between Trump and Clinton supporters at a Donald Trump rally would not be a million miles away from these depressingly entertaining spectacles.
David Calder is excellent as the central, plot-driving Gus Marcantonio, a manipulative, cantankerous, vulnerable Italian American patriarch and retired Brooklyn waterfront longshoreman with a militant past. He's the cousin of a historical figure, Vito Marcantonio, a Communist-sympathising Member of the House of Representatives in the mid-20th century. Tom Piper's fairly generic bare grey, three-storied set with stairs zigzagging from the ground floor is good quality and serves the drama well. But it could be made to look more like a brownstone townhouse in Brooklyn, where Gus's two sons, daughter and sister have gathered to discuss his suicide attempt. He believes that the world has gone to the dogs and is planning another bid to top himself. The trade unionism he spent so long fighting for has long died a death, but his motivations for wanting to take his own life are, like so much else in this play, not that simple.
Gus's house is worth $4 million, and he tells his kids he wants to sell it and depart so they can enjoy their inheritance. Admirable selflessness, but a smokescreen. Each of his children has their own personal problems and it's clear money won't provide the simple solution. Tamsin Greig gives a great performance as Empty (Maria Teresa = MT = Empty), the most likeable of the feisty siblings. Recently separated from husband Adam (Daniel Flynn), she's desperate for a baby and, as a lawyer, presents Gus with the most logically and emotionally compelling arguments not to kill himself. Her brother Pill (Pierluigi = P.L. = Pill), meanwhile, is experiencing traumas of his own in relation to his twenty-six year union with Paul (Rhashan Stone) and his expensive liaison with hustler Eli (Luke Newberry). Richard Clothier does exceptionally well as he stepped in to play Pill at the last minute following Matt McGrath pulling out for personal reasons. Lex Shrapnel as the hot-headed other son, V, and Sara Kestelman as Gus's world-weary sister also stand out.
Each of these individual dramas would have made an interesting play in their own right. iHo's long full name derives from George Bernard Shaw's The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism and also Mary Baker Eddy's late nineteenth century lengthy tome on Christian Science, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. As an evening's entertainment, the human stories in iHo are captivating; the ideas - though inseparable - are a little dry.
photos | ©Manuel Harlan