First presented at the Guthrie Theater in 2009, Tony Kushner's latest effort is now in previews at The Public in a coproduction with Signature Theatre. The first sign of trouble occurred when I was reading the program. Two of the characters were named Empty and Pill. Was this going to be Kushner's homage to Beckett? As it turns out, the answer is "no" -- the names were based on their initials MT and PL. What was gained by this escapes me.
The action takes place during a long summer weekend in 2007 at the Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn home of Gus Marcantonio, played by the able Michael Cristofer. Gus, the father of this spectacularly dysfunctional family, is an avid Marxist, former longshoreman and union official who attempted suicide the year before. His sister Clio (Brenda Wehle), a nun who once was associated with S. American guerillas but is now devoted to serving the poor of Patterson, New Jersey, moved in with him after his suicide attempt. He thinks he is developing Alzheimer's and has called his three children together to take a vote on whether he should end it all. The eldest, Pill, played by Stephen Spinella, is a gay ABD history teacher who has been in a 20+ year relationship with the long-suffering Paul, a black theology professor (K. Todd Freeman). Pill also has an expensive yen for Yale-educated hustler Eli (Michael Esper) on whom he has spent $30,000 borrowed from his sister Empty (Linda Emond). Empty is a former nurse turned labor lawyer and lesbian whose partner Maeve (Danielle Skraastad) is very pregnant. Empty is not above an occasional toss in the hay with her ex-husband Adam (Matt Servitto) who conveniently lives in the basement apartment. At Maeve's insistence, Empty's younger brother V (Steven Pasquale) has donated his sperm. V has rebelled against his lefty upbringing and is now a contractor with a very low opinion of unions. His Asian-American wife Sooze (Hettienne Park) is a calming influence on him. Shelle (Molly Price), the widow of another longshoreman, has a small but important role.
The play alternates between one-on-one conversations and group confrontations.The chaotic shouting match that ends the second act was the most memorable moment of the play. An astute friend pointed out that this scene strongly resembles the Act II finale of "August: Osage County." A seemingly important discovery near the end of Act II is strangely ignored until the final moments of the play. The third act drags on and on until it finally sputters to a close. I give Kushner credit for addressing some Big Issues and writing some intermittently witty dialog, but the family members, especially Pill, are short on redeeming qualities that might have made me care more deeply about them. Despite the fine acting and fluid direction by Michael Greif, I found the play a disappointment. At almost 4 hours, it wore out its welcome long before it ended. I'm sure the major critics will be much kinder.