Tony Kushner's canon has always been a tribute to the epic nature of theater.
Never one to shrink away from the dense and the difficult, the Pulitzer-winning playwright has championed sprawling intellectual ambition from his two-part, almost seven-hour masterpiece "Angels in America" to the eerily prescient "Homebody/Kabul." His genius stems from his ability to illuminate ideas that might seem impossibly unwieldy to lesser minds. Through his eyes, doctrine can be witty, theory can be foreplay. In this heady universe, thinking is sexy.
Now in "The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures," the playwright locks horns with the essential questions of class, history and politics that have always anchored his work. Only this time, the narrative is an almost four-hour family drama that echoes Arthur Miller and Anton Chekhov but is uniquely Kushnerian in its marriage of poetry and politics.
In its long-awaited West Coast premiere at Berkeley Rep, it's an astonishing achievement that's as thrilling and provocative as it is challenging, even exhausting, at times. While there are points when the dialectics bog down the action, particularly in the first act, for the most part "Intelligent" leaves the viewer electrified by the playwright's command of theme and form. Beautifully directed by Tony Taccone, this freshly revised version of "Intelligent" grapples with the weight of history, the death of idealism and the corrosive nature of family bonds.
Steeped in everything from G.B. Shaw to Mary Baker Eddy, this is domestic drama writ large. Gus (a riveting Mark Margolis) has devoted his life to the cause of labor. Now in his 70s, the card-carrying Communist sees this as a tragic waste of time and spirit. In his view, the future is bleak. The little guy has lost. The future belongs to the fat cats. Money has emerged as the one true god.
Ready to lay down his sword, the retired longshoremen plans to sell off his Brooklyn brownstone, give his children the proceeds and put an end to his misery.
Of course, his children refuse to let him go gently. In their sorrow and desperation, they rant, they rail, they revenge upon each other. Empty (the deft Deirdre Lovejoy), a steely labor lawyer with a very pregnant wife (Liz Wisan), is the hardest hit. She believes in the struggle far more than her brothers, the contractor Vito (Joseph J. Parks) and the high school teacher Pill (Lou Liberatore), who is cheating on his hubby, Paul (a fierce Tyrone Mitchell Henderson).
Gus' desire for death even rattles Clio (Randy Danson), his unflappable sister, a former Carmelite nun turned Maoist who gives the show one of its most hilarious moments.
The play's most explosive scenes crescendo like symphonies of heartache, each character screaming his or her truth in a frenzy of anger and fear. You have to pick a voice and stick with that arc lest you be swept away by the emotional clamor.
Kushner weaves so much discourse and debate into this fractious family opera that it's often dizzying. But even those of us who don't know Hegel from Horace come away from the play pondering the nature of ownership and worth. Taccone, a veteran Kushner collaborator, truly makes the play's dogmatic battles sing.
Gus has always believed that workers are objectified by their labor, but through the failed affairs and marriages of his children we see that relationships can also be commodified. The hustler Eli (Jordan Geiger) isn't the only one here reduced by the function he serves. Everyone in this crazy brood has been defined, and limited, by their utility to the family.
The ensemble renders each moment with such acute emotional truth that the production builds intensity from start to finish. Even an unsettling lighting snafu (caused by a medical emergency in the mezzanine) in the show's climactic faceoff between father and daughter couldn't diminish the theatrical power of the moment.
The linguistic richness of the piece is so startling that it even overshadows Christopher Barecca's colossal and intricate set design, a puzzle in details and hydraulics.
As ever, Kushner leaves you with your heart in your mouth and your mind on fire -- and that's priceless.
By Tony Kushner
Through: June 29
Where: Berkeley Rep, Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley
Running time: Three hours and 45 minutes, two intermissions
Tickets: $29-$99; 510-647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org