The title of Tony Kushner‘s latest play knocks it out of the park in the length department. The play itself doesn’t fare so badly in those stakes either – at three and a half hours, with two intervals, it’s a little daunting. But, lest we forget, this is Pulitzer-winning Kushner – also responsible for the masterpiece Angels in America. His new play may be long and wordy, but it’s also really good.
Hampstead Theatre have got round this tricky-to-market name by giving it a more convenient, social media-friendly subtitle – iHo. So let’s save on word count and call it this from now on. The play is a family saga; an epic depiction of an American Italian immigrant family’s fading radical socialism roots. It is also about legacy and how kids can be the hope and despair of their parents, while parents can be stones around their children’s necks.
iHo follows the calling together of the Marcantonio family to their Brownstone house in Brooklyn in 2007. Patriarch and radical communist Gus has decided he’s going to kill himself because he has Alzheimer’s and wants the approval of the entire clan. Gus’ favourite of his three kids is labour lawyer MT – pronounced Empty – (played by Tamsin Greig); then there's his gay, unhappy history teacher son PL – pronounced Pill – (played by Richard Clothier) and his working-man labourer youngest V (played by Lex Shrapnel). Shortened from their original Italian, their names are symbolic of the sort of people they are. With them is Gus’ zen-like sister, one-time nun and Maoist Clio (played by Sara Kestelman).
This is an exceptionally American family and an exceptionally American play. The Marcantonio’s talk non-stop over each other, there’s no British restraint or unhealthy suppression here: the kids say what they think and rage and rant. It’s made all the more acute because Gus has brought them up to be inherently political and fiercely intelligent. While their family dilemma rages, their ex and current spouses turn up at the house and they are as opinionated as anyone else. There are several hilarious scenes where you literally cannot hear what anyone is saying because they are all talking at such speed and volume.
This family is from old-American socialist stock – cousins, fathers and grandads were involved with labour strikes, the campaigning for rights for workers and they had a congressman in the family. His portrait hangs over them in the kitchen – a constant reminder of the better, prouder, political days. And, it turns out, Gus’ intention to die is not just an attempt to remove the burden he will be on his kids once he gets more ill; his declaration is political. It is partly an attempt to force his kids out of their safe, numb worlds into the harsh realities of life.
Kushner’s dialogue is packed and furious, but it’s beautifully constructed. There are nods to several of the great American family plays – All My Sons, A View from the Bridge – tied up within it, but this is very much a 21st century work which sets out to reflect what has become of us. His humour is both raucous – almost slapstick at times – and more subtle and though the play’s ending tails off unsatisfactorily, the rest of the piece is meaty and brilliant.
The cast help. David Calder as Gus is a rock at the centre of choppy waters. He is grumpy and loud and full of brash love for his kids. Greig is restless, angry and unhappy as MT and her performance is superb, shot through with pain and anguish at the thought of losing her dad, but realistic and ruthless too. There’s great work elsewhere including a splendid Kestelman as the enigmatic and wise Clio and a very impressive Luke Newberry as Eli, PL’s young lover.
Tom Piper’s excellent three-tiered set which evokes a Brownstone apartment with fire-escape stairs towers over the action and allows director Michael Boyd to work wonders with the dynamics within the piece. Boyd’s careful, steady hand is clear in everything; he manages to stage a complex, knotty, angry play with great grace and agility. It zooms through its three and a half hours.
The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures runs at Hampstead Theatre until 26 November.