Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth once asserted that Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures is “as good as its title is long.” This resolute work centers on a family’s “deeply emotional battle over what makes life worth living” after Gus summons his three adult children to explain his plans to commit suicide. I caught up with Broadway and television star Tom Wiggin making his Theater J debut as Gus, a retired longshoreman and lifelong Communist.
OTIS: I finished reading Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide, and I immediately wanted to read it again. For those familiar with Kushner’s work, it’ll come as no surprise that the play is smart, at times dense, and immensely rich. How do you even begin to tackle something like this? What’s your process?
TOM: Well, first of all, this has been the most challenging role of my career. I played Hamlet in high school and five roles in a play called Texarkana Waltz in New York, and this eclipses those. The good news is that Kushner's writing really suits my approach to acting. I like language that leads you to intent and emotion, rather than the other way around—making up random intent and ginning up emotion to support the language. If you follow his words explicitly, Kushner will, like Shakespeare, get you to a reading of the words that clearly reveals the intent of the character (and a way to play that intent) at that moment. So the first thing I had to do was to completely surrender to the fact that I had to learn the script verbatim, with no changes on my part or casual improvisation or alteration. Kushner not only replicates normal speech, but he's replicating the speech patterns of an Italian American New Yorker, which adds words and creates a distinctive syntax which is unnatural to my speech (though having lived in New York for many years, I was comfortable adapting to it). So understanding how the words were taking me into Gus's life was job one—and then trusting that those words would get me where I needed to go emotionally, was job two.
Job three was learning the context that Kushner was using to write this. He supplied us with a mind-bending glossary of terms and historical references that he uses in the play to support its content. Dealing with a brain like Kushner's is very intimidating. He just has more information on more subjects than anyone I've ever dealt with except my own father. I call him the Stephen Hawking of the arts.
OTIS: Gus is a remarkable figure. As a father, I was struck by the way in which he invests something different in each of his children. Can you talk about Gus’s relationships with Pill, Empty, and Vic? How do you develop those relationship nuances with the actors who portray your children?
TOM: What's cool about the play is that while Gus manipulates his children to lead to his desired outcome, he discovers exactly who his children are and what they mean to him in a way that he doesn't expect during the course of the play. To develop those relationship nuances, the most important thing Susan, Lou, Tim, and I have practiced is listening carefully to each other on stage. When we do that and serve the text faithfully without alteration, we keep finding new things every time we perform. This is an incredible group of actors to work with—smart, generous, skilled, and flat-out talented.
OTIS: Kushner writes about the world in such a specific moment. Can you paint a picture of Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn in June 12-14, 2007?
The Bush Years, when it became clear to even the most casual observer, that this was the triumph of greedy white men over the rest of the world. And Gus sees what everyone saw back then, that these greedy white men would do anything, including making up a war, to benefit corporate interests. And Gus sees this as the culmination of a pattern that has been developing for a long time, as unionism waned and the world shifted from a more honest capitalistic paradigm (partnership with labor in order to create goods that people need) to private equity manipulation that has made a mockery of the whole thing. Plus, Carroll Gardens is one of those neighborhoods that exemplifies gentrification. It was a core Italian American neighborhood that has since seen a diminution of that ethnic group as the direct result of a shrinking working class and the rise of the young hedge fund management class that has moved in and altered the neighborhood for good.
OTIS: When creating Gus, did you invest anything personal of yourself?
TOM: If I didn't then you shouldn't come to the show. Absolutely. I reach back to the demoralization I felt in those years, and still experience from time to time as I observe the political process we have now, which clearly rewards moneyed interests in a way that is bald-faced and hurts people in a very real way. I also have used my experience as the father of two grown daughters to inform some choices. And certainly the fact that I am older and have been experiencing more trouble with my memory makes playing Gus very poignant. This role has really highlighted the diminishment of my memory facility, which always has been a real strength of mine. And most importantly, I reflect on many of the arguments I had in my family around the dinner table on the merits of the Vietnam War and other political issues. It got very heated, and I use that to impel Gus's fervor.
OTIS: Final thoughts?
TOM: I'm new to the area. This is only my second show here. I've had a 35+ year career in New York. And I can only say that the level of professionalism at Theater J and the collaboration with director John Vreeke and the rest of the cast has been as good as anything I have experienced in New York. And it has been an incredibly rewarding and joyful journey so far. You can't ask for anymore than that.
The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures by Tony Kushner runs through December 21 at Theater J.