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Kushner's play -- is it ready for its premiere?

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'Intelligent Homosexual'
Michael Esper (Eli Wolcott) and Stephen Spinella (Pier Luigi Marcantonio [Pill]) in the world premiere of "The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures," by Tony Kushner at the Guthrie Theater. The play premieres on Friday and runs through June.
Photo copyright Michal Daniel, courtesy of the Guthrie Theater

The opening of Kushner's play has already been bumped back a week. And Kushner himself admits he continues to revise or rewrite whole sections just days before the production's official launch. 

By all reports Tony Kushner's new play is vintage Kushner -- ambitious, complex and thematically rich. It's also got a really long title -- "The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures." 

The title contains nods to two 19th century intellectual giants, playwright George Bernard Shaw, and Christian Scientist Mary Baker Eddy. It's about a retired longshoreman in Brooklyn who feels deeply disconnected from 21st century life. 

Tony Kushner
Playwright Tony Kushner.
Photo by Roy Zipstein

Kushner said on MPR's Midmorning program today  that even though the show is already in previews, he's still not sure what kind of play it will be. 

"Last night the audience saw the actors dealing with at least five substantially rewritten scenes, and one of the actors had to carry a script -- my good friend Linda Eamon -- because I'd done all this rewriting of her part. There was simply no way to memorize it, but we're in previews, that's what previews are for," Kushner  said. 

Ongoing rewrites tend to be standard procedure for Kushner. It was true with the 2001 play many critics say anticipated 9/11, "Homebody Kabul." It was also the case for his landmark play, which was turned into an award-winning HBO special, "Angels in America."

"These are plays that I'll work on for the rest of my life," said Kushner. "Every time there's a production I'll want to do something with them. Because there's something in them that doesn't arrive at a final shape -- which doesn't mean that I think that they don't work. I just think that there's always room for changing them around, they're sort of open in that way."

Joe Dowling
Guthrie Artistic Director Joe Dowling.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

Kushner may be comfortable making substantial changes to his script in the final hours, but it's created an added strain for the "Intelligent Homosexual's" cast, crew, and the Guthrie staff. 

St. Paul Pioneer Press Theater Critic Dominic Papatola says this premiere is the capstone event of the Guthrie's severalweeks-long Kushner Festival. Papatola says the pressure is on.

"People are really expecting to see a spectacular play here, and to see something that, if it's not the next 'Angels in America,' will be a major new American play," said Papatola.  

Papatola expects that critics from across the country will be streaming in to see Kushner's new play on Friday. He says they may be more forgiving than local audiences if it doesn't look fully completed, because they may see the Guthrie run as an intitial step in the play's development.

"Twin Cities audiences, Minnesota audiences are sophisticated audiences, and I don't think they're interested in seeing a play in progress," said Papatola, "especially if it's on the main stage of one of the major regional theaters in the country. I think they're interested in seeing a finished product."

At the Guthrie, Artistic Director Joe Dowling says things are tense but exciting as Kushner's new play goes through a birthing process. 

Dowling agrees it's Kushner's longstanding habit to work on a play until the last minute, but he says audiences will see a final version -- for the most part.

"The play, when we open it on Friday night, will be finished, um, for now," Dowling said. "That doesn't mean that he won't ever revisit it and do other things. That's what he's done all along, and that's what makes him such an exciting playwright. So yes he will be finished, and yes he's still writing."

Dowling claims he's not worried at all by how audiences and critics will respond to the new play. He says his main concern is that local theatergoers get exposed to a wide variety of Kushner's work over the course of the festival.