MINNEAPOLIS — The Intelligent Homosexual is nearing his 53rd birthday. Physically, his smile is still youthful, his hair barely flecked with gray. Psychically, though, he admits to feeling that he is in “the afternoon of my life.” His beloved aunt Martha died in 2006, his father is pushing into his 80s, and the Intelligent Homosexual has allowed himself to contemplate “the idea of not being here anymore.”
It has been 18 years since Tony Kushner first set the dramatic world afire with his life’s opus, “Angels in America,” and more than five years since he launched a major new work for the stage.
His work since clearly puts him in the first water of American dramatists, from “Munich,” his Oscar-nominated screenplay, to “Caroline, or Change” (Tony-nominated), to “Homebody/Kabul” and “Brundibar,” his collaboration with Maurice Sendak. When he has not written, he has spoken, to anyone who wants to listen to his provocations and observations about politics and art.
Yet as “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures” opens Friday at the Guthrie Theater, the theatrical world again is tempted to wonder whether Tony Kushner will ever rediscover the perfect constellation that made “Angels” an anthem of its time and transformed him into a celebrity.
“I know that by the end, Arthur Miller was sick of answering questions about ‘Salesman,’ and ‘All My Sons,’” said Guthrie Director Joe Dowling, who has invited Kushner to use his theater for this world premiere. “There is an element of writers getting frustrated by their early success. In Tony’s case, he’s a fairly young man, but I would imagine that he would probably want to move on.”
Oskar Eustis, head of the Public Theater in New York and Kushner’s friend for more than 25 years, deflected the question, noting the improbability that anyone in a lifetime could write something that captured the moment in quite the way “Angels” did.
Still, Eustis said, Kushner recognizes the pressure every time he enters the arena.
“I’m sure he’s aware of it,” Eustis said in a phone interview. “He’s aware of the stakes, and he’s trying to not let that paralyze him.”
When he was 40, Kushner revealed in the afterword to the book “Tony Kushner in Conversation” that he was writing “a massive book running to many volumes entitled, ‘The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism With a Key to the Scriptures.’”
He wrote that this tome would comprise nothing less than his life’s epic — his thoughts, nightmares, juicy tidbits from friends and strangers, a record of hygiene and wasted hours.
Somewhere in the ensuing 12 years, he appropriated that title — borrowed from George Bernard Shaw and Mary Baker Eddy — for an intensely personal play that reflects Kushner’s growing awareness of his age and that he has something to say about that.
“You make a decision in trying to control how long you want to stay around,” he said at a New York reception in March. “You understand at a certain point of life that it is coming.”
He demurred that he was feeling his mortality (“You feel your mortality from the time you’re 2 years old”) or that he was mulling a midlife crisis (“I hate that term”) before admitting that this season of life has indeed informed the new work.
“Death is very much on the mind of this play,” said Eustis. “This is a play that is haunted by ghosts.”
Interestingly, “Angels” too was fixed on the ultimate mystery of eternity — a cri de coeur for those in his community, Gay America, who were dying from AIDS. The work’s mythic invention and its Shakespearean sprawl reflected his agony. Eustis feels the new play again summons those big themes. “You won’t see a play with more sex and death in it this year,” he said.
The new play revolves around a family reunion presided over by a patriarch who had attempted suicide the previous year. Two of his three children are gay.
“He takes what on the surface is a fairly colorful but nonetheless normal family of a longshoreman in Brooklyn and traces its roots in both politics and theology in a way that has them take on mythic dimension,” Eustis said.
On the elevator up to that March reception, “Guide” director Michael Greif smiled when asked whether Kushner had delivered a draft.
“He’s written some scenes,” said Greif, who recently won a Tony nomination for his directing of the Broadway musical “Next to Normal.” “Some very exciting scenes.”
Kushner himself said that night that the play was taking shape but that he had little on paper.
Rehearsals for “The Intelligent Homosexual” began in Minneapolis on Apri1 21. The next day, the Guthrie pushed the opening back a week. Amid reports that Kushner hadn’t finished the script, reliable sources said he finally delivered the last act just weeks ago. Rewrites are certain, with the intention of getting the sprawling script to less than three hours before Friday’s opening.
Apprised of that news, Eustis suggested Kushner is in a way hostage to the characters in his subconscious. He cannot write unless they speak to him.
“Sure, it’s relatively unusual,” said Eustis of the timetable. “But with Tony, nothing usual has ever happened. One of the amazing things about him is his ability to work under circumstances that most of us would find unbearable in terms of pressure.”
Linda Emond, one of the actors for whom Kushner wrote this new play, is familiar with the birthing process.
“It’s kind of a beautiful thing, because seeing him wrestle with something like that, you know that it’s wrestling of the highest order,” she said.
Emond spent several hours earlier this spring discussing the play’s genesis with Kushner at a small cafe near the New York apartment he shares with his husband, writer Mark Harris. This is not much different, she said, than “Homebody/Kabul” a decade ago. Emond, who played the central character in that drama, recalled taking the train up to Kushner’s cabin (since sold) on the Hudson River.
“He had changed it about 8,000 times and he just needed to hear it,” she said. “So I went up, I sat next to him and read it, he took a couple of notes, we had lunch and I took the train home.”
Kushner seemed more annoyed by the Minneapolis chill (“It’s so cold!”) than by theatrical pressure during a brief photo shoot last Sunday. In addition to the new play, “Caroline, or Change” is on the Guthrie thrust stage, and several short works have been cobbled together for “Tiny Kushner” in the Guthrie studio.
“It’s been interesting looking at these short plays,” he said, walking across the Guthrie’s riverside porch. “They’re like a notebook for this play.”
Most of Kushner’s time in Minneapolis has been spent shuttling between his Guthrie-supplied apartment and a makeshift office at the theater. However, Eustis — a Minnesota native — says, “You will be pleased with the sense that clearly Minnesota has influenced the man. Minneapolis is ending up permeating the script.”
Despite the weather, Kushner is happy to be opening his show in Minneapolis. His hatred for the rituals of New York debuts is well known, particularly the inordinate amount of influence a single review in the New York Times exerts. The Guthrie has asked out-of-town critics to stay away until early June.
“I did have plans, but they seem to be balking at we out-of-towners coming to opening night,” Chicago Tribune drama critic Chris Jones wrote in an e-mail. “Nervous nellies.”
Art, of course, is never finished, only abandoned. Kushner will decide after the Guthrie run where the “The Intelligent Homosexual” will move next, and then return to the project he moved to the back burner for this season — the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” Beyond that, there is nothing less than the entire world awaiting his energies as a writer and an activist.
“He keeps himself extremely active and contributing to the culture as a public intellectual,” said Eustis. “One of the most inspiring things about his example is that it’s possible to see yourself as an artist and an activist in the political life of the time at the same time.”
And whether the new play ascends to the firmament as “Angels” did, or simply lands in the Tony Kushner canon as a provocative thicket of dramatic ideas, “The Intelligent Homosexual” will continue his journey — testing the longevity in his genes and annotating that book of life, of which he wrote 12 years ago:
“He knows it to be incompletable, he knows he will die writing it, he knows he is working himself to death — though he does not want to die.”
THE INTELLIGENT HOMOSEXUAL’S GUIDE TO CAPITALISM AND SOCIALISM WITH A KEY TO THE SCRIPTURES
By Tony Kushner. Directed by Michael Greif.
When: Friday through June 28.
Where: Guthrie Theater Proscenium, 818 2nd St., Minneapolis
Tickets: $24-$60. 612-377-2224 or www.guthrietheater.org.