Tony Kushner's impossibly long title throws up multiple buzzwords that feature within this occasionally gripping yet frequently laboured play that tries too hard to address multiple high level themes without ever feeling complete. In the fascinating programme interview, Kushner describes the play as being 'incommensurable', meaning it will never settle and won't be neat – an idea that is certainly shared by the audience throughout each of the three acts who grapple to keep control of the drama that shifts just at the moment that you feel you've cracked its puzzle.
This disclaimer may help with an basic understanding of the premise and delivery of the drama, but it doesn't help the average audience member who is faced with finding moments of recognition and relatability. It's overly portentous and at times pretentious in tone as characters slip in and out of the realms of reality and believability, becoming mouthpieces for each of the title's loaded topics whilst simultaneously attempting to hide behind a contemporary domestic drama.
It's the human elements that land most effectively with the audience allowing moments of relation to the cast of angry and petulant neighbours from hell. Kushner assembles a lot of characters who all have a lot to say, and rarely listen, and at times it's easy to see why. Former communist and labour leader Gus assembles his family together to announce that he is contemplating suicide, blaming onset Alzheimer’s, instead of his distrust and loss of ideals. As the family are threatened by the loss of their Brooklyn Brownstone, the wider context threatens to suffocate not only the intimacy of the relations but also the driving force of the drama.
Kushner is an inspiring and important writer who is master at juggling multiple narrative threads that each compound a central topic. Here however he allows the ideas to get carried away to loftier heights than his characters either require or demand, and it's hard to connect when the grandstanding kicks in. His handling of language is accurate and insightful, and the piece excels at both the explosive moments where lines pile upon lines and we become overwhelmed at the cacophony of sound, as well as the more intimate moments such as the final two scenes that are beautifully underpinned with an honest delivery.
But the writing seems to lose its way in its preoccupation with lofty ideas which twists the characters into unnaturally produced mouthpieces for mixed ideology. The characters lack spontaneity amongst other defects, and are too easily manipulated by the author to fulfil his own desires rather than serve their basic dramatic functions. Stuffed full of theatrical allusion, from Marsha Norman's 'night Mother to Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, it's the strains of Arthur Miller's A View From a Bridge that are hardest to ignore as a similar Brooklyn Longshoreman destroys his family – this time for a political ideal rather than a domestic quarrel. The pontificating echoes Bernard Shaw, who himself is name-checked in the first act, from which the verbose title is partly drawn.
It's spectacularly acted, with bravura turns from Tamsin Grieg as 'Empty' (M.T – Maria Teresa), Lex Shrapnel as 'V' and Richard Clothier as 'Pill' – three siblings who explore the issues in a complex and well judged staging by director Michael Boyd. For all their shouting and squabbling, it's the softer moments that really resonate, and in the case of Grieg help gravitate the play to a higher level of dramatic integrity. I found myself particularly drawn to Sara Kestelman's Clio, the suffering sister of Gus who mid-argument leaves the narrative crossing the stage with her belongings never to be seen again. At times I wished I could follow her into the wings, but thanks to the performances, and Kushner's skill at constantly throwing you off your tracks, I was ultimately gripped enough to remain suitably vested in the conclusion. A slow and sometimes difficult burn, but a play that succeeds by drip-feeding its riches that play on your subconscious long after the metaphorical curtain falls.
What the Press Said...
"There are many better-organised plays around, but Kushner’s has the rare capacity to make ideas fizz."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"what’s striking as ever is Kushner’s dramatic ambition and intellectual elan and the evening, moving towards dark pathos as the method of self-slaughter is confronted, is directed with great style by Michael Boyd on a monumental cross-section of a three-storey house, designed by Tom Piper."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"There are spurts of shouty incoherence and self-indulgent obscurity throughout the play, and the confrontations can appear contrived."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard