This blog post contains spoilers.
When I was watching Tony Kushner's THE INTELLIGENT HOMOSEXUAL'S GUIDE TO CAPITALISM AND SOCIALISM WITH A KEY TO THE SCRIPTURES I thought of David Mamet. Which was on the face of it rather strange - except for both being Jewish they have almost nothing in common, and I love Tony Kushner's political views for the most part and think that ANGELS IN AMERICA might be the best play of the 20th century.
Whereas David Mamet... well, I didn't think I could hold David Mamet in any lower esteem, but after this week's NYTimes interview it turns out I can. Although really, at this point I suspect Mamet is in the early stages of Alzheimer's - I mean WTF?
Q. You wrote that Karl Marx “never worked a day in his life.” But how is his writing “Das Kapital” fundamentally different from the way you make a living? You realize you’re not a plumber, right?What an English degree and writers of the past hundred years have to do with Karl Marx, whom it is safe to say did not have an English degree, and has been dead for well over a hundred years, is a complete mystery.
A. Jesus Christ. Listen, here’s the thing about an English degree — if you sat somebody down and asked them to make a list of the writers they admire over the last hundred years, see how many of them got a degree in English.
So maybe it's time to pity Mamet rather than despise him.
Although it's hard to pity either Mamet or Kushner - anything they write will be produced. Mamet's RACE is one example - only in the theatre world can Mamet write such absurd paranoid right-wing dreck and not be called on it.
It's easier to see how bad Mamet's play is though, because the bad guy, the Black Woman is so insanely over-the-top bad: willing to sacrifice her law career to destroy a decent guy's law career (over the issue of false rape charges, as in OLEANNA) because she's vowed to Get Whitey since college.
iHo is not as easily pegged as ridiculous because Kushner's play has no villain, and also because he throws so much stuff into the play that it takes a little more time to see through to the fact that there is no there there.
But having a villain, Roy Cohn, ("the polestar of human evil") in ANGELS IN AMERICA is what made it work. ANGELS had a lot of stuff in it, a lot of characters, but the through-line of Roy Cohn's AIDS diagnosis and death brings it all together. That's why ANGELS works - the excellent plot. That's pretty much what makes any play that's considered a classic, work. HAMLET, OUR TOWN, PROOF all have excellent plots. I was listening to a radio play version of PROOF just last week and admiring how tight that plot is. There's virtually nothing out of place. I bet David Auburn went through lots of re-writes to get it like that.
But Kushner, like Mamet is so revered in the theatre world that neither of them have to do re-writes until the plot works, any more. So they don't. They are secular holy men, they can do no wrong. First draft, third draft, tenth draft - it will get produced at whatever draft they say it's done.
I hate to agree with the dread John Simon, now relegated in his dotage to the Yonkers Tribune but he's right:
Which brings me to the problem with the prevailing American mentality. It is so slavishly success-oriented that, once someone had a hit, as Kushner had with Angels, he can blithely coast along on that indefinitely. Everything thereafter, even detritus like his current offering, will be hailed as a masterpiece. And as for the play’s alleged guide to the scriptures, that won’t wash either. Doesn’t the Bible condemn Onan for spilling his seed on the ground?
And speaking of strange bedfellows, Michael Feingold of the Village Voice, likes iHo no more than Simon:
Seeing all these arcana squeezed together evokes a comic strip, or a politicized version of Red Grooms’s “ruckuses”; it certainly doesn’t suggest the taut drama of a suicide watch. And indeed, despite all the sour, embittered fervor Cristofer brings the role, Gus hardly seems suicidal: Kushner’s elaborate contrivance of the family council and the sale of the brownstone seems as factitious as the blurry chronology the script gives Gus’s union career. (He appears to have made his way openly espousing Communism just when unions were expunging CP members from their ranks.) The other stories, each equally paper-thin in its details, seem merely to have a distant, hi-there connection with the central issue of Gus’s survival. Only Michael Greif’s scrupulous, thorough direction, and the passion in the largely excellent acting, allow IHoG’s narrative to bear any weight. In addition to Cristofer, Wehle’s plangent quietude and Freeman’s subtly escalating fury enhance the drama most. While Kushner’s words are flying, you may not notice how little his drama means.
To illustrate exactly what he means about paper-thin stories and meaninglessness: the suicidal dad's favorite child, M.T., is a lesbian with a pregnant domestic partner. Here are some related facts:
She has sex at least twice with her ex-husband and the pregnant domestic partner knows about it, but does nothing about it. So it adds nothing to the story.
The pregnant domestic partner was impregnated by the suicidal dad's youngest son, Vinnie. Everybody thinks it's from artificial insemination, but M.T.'s ex-husband reveals to everybody, including Vinnie's wife, that in fact the insemination was done in the old-fashioned way. Vinnie's wife just laughs. So it's meaningless to the plot.
The ex-husband - whom John Simon correctly describes as "too unappealing even for a heterosexual spouse, much less for a lesbian one, to seek him out for sex" - later reveals - for the second-intermission curtain line - that it was he who bought the family home and claims he got the idea from seeing a production of THE CHERRY ORCHARD and actually says "I bought the Cherry Orchard!" As the woman sitting next to me in the audience said: "I didn't see that coming."
But it turns out that this plot twist is utterly meaningless - soon after intermission, M.T. makes him give her the deed back. So what was the point?
The actor playing Vinnie however was hot hot hot - much hotter than the male prostitute character who is being paid by the Kushner avatar character PL for sex. But both these young male characters seemed to be inexplicably angry at times. I mean, they have gripes, like anybody, but both of them suddenly erupt into a shouting fit for no plot-related reasons, although they explain the causes of their anger, more or less. But it makes no dramatic sense.
But the absolutely most annoying and meaningless aspect of this play was the suitcase in the wall. The Vinnie character in his incoherent rage, punches a hole in the wall, and while trying to fix it pulls a suitcase out of the wall. He puts it on the dining room table. There are six or seven characters in the room at that point. Not ONE of them opens the suitcase. We don't find out what's in the suitcase until the end of the play. But I mean that's INSANE. If you find something old and buried in your house's wall the FIRST THING you're going to think is - there could be money in there!
There is no family on earth that would not IMMEDIATELY look into the suitcase. It was driving me crazy that they would all rather stand around and argue and ignore the suitcase.
It turns out there were a bunch of papers & stuff in the suitcase. Not really a big deal. It didn't have to be in the wall, at all, really, he could have just found it in a trunk and took it out to look at in time for the big plot wrap-up of the last scene.
One bright spot in the production is Danielle Skraastad, whom I first discovered in a 5-person production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. John Simon says she "comes across as a garrulous fishwife." I won't quibble with him, not having a clear idea what a "fishwife" might be like - but she is funny as hell. She steals every scene she's in because she's so funny and direct. Her role isn't especially meaningful and there's no real reason given for why she just had regular hetero sex with her girlfriend's brother - although as a heterosexual I could certainly understand it, Steven Pasquale is, as I said, majorly hot. But since all the characters are more or less complete ciphers, her character doesn't stand out for that - but for having the best laugh lines.
If Kushner went back and threw out all this extraneous meaningless plot points he might have something good. But as it is, it's a self-indulgent mess.
And also the extended periods where everybody screamed at each other at the same time gave me a massive headache. This technique might have worked for twenty seconds, but it goes on for much longer than that. WTF? STFU!!!