The narrative arc focuses on retired longshoreman and former union organizer Gus Marcantonio (Michael Cristofer) and his three adult children, Pill (Stephen Spinella), Empty (Linda Emond), and V (Steven Pasquale). Gus wants to commit suicide, and the immediate family -- which also includes Gus' sister Clio (Brenda Wehle) -- has convened to determine how they should all proceed. The answer is not quite as simple as one might expect, and Gus' plan throws the already dysfunctional family into turmoil.
As if this were not enough, each of Gus' children are also in the midst of their own domestic dramas. Pill's long-term relationship with partner Paul (K. Todd Freeman) is threatened by the former's habit of sleeping with prostitutes, and particularly a young hustler by the name of Eli (Michael Esper). Empty's lesbian partner Maeve (Danielle Skraastad) is pregnant, with the sperm donor being none other than V.
The play, as might be expected from Kushner, does include lengthy speeches and politically charged arguments relating to the labor movement, among other subjects. Gus comes from a solidly working class background, but only V, who works in construction, seems to be continuing that tradition -- and even then, V is a contractor with his own business, so would really be part of management rather than labor. As for Empty and Pill, they are both intellectuals, and each of their partners are intellectuals -- even Eli is Yale-educated.
All three children acknowledge the importance of their father's accomplishments and ideals, even if they sometimes disagree on their societal impact. For his part, Gus contends that the communist party in America lost its way once it gave up on the idea of revolution. Some of his most heated verbal battles are with Empty, who is a labor lawyer -- and his favorite child.
Cristofer and Emond have a good rapport, and their characters' relationship is the emotional core of the play. Their final scene together is particularly chilling as father and daughter come to an understanding of one another, even if acceptance may be harder to come by.
Pill is a largely unsympathetic and whiny character, but Spinella manages to expose the raw emotional need that drives him to self-sabotaging behavior; the actor is also adept at bringing out the humor in the script. Pasquale does terrific work, and the vulnerability he expresses in V's final confrontation with Gus is heartbreaking. Director Michael Grief has also coaxed finely nuanced performances from the remainder of his cast, with Esper, Skraastad, and Wehle doing particularly good work.
At nearly four hours (including two intermissions), the play could use some trimming, or at the very least more focus. There are a few subplots -- including a conflict between Maeve and Paul and an end-of-second-act revelation by Empty's ex-husband Adam (Matt Servitto) -- that feel unnecessary. A few of the longer speeches also seem to be less character-driven and more about the playwright wanting to express certain ideas.
Overall, however, the politics embedded within Kushner's play are intricately interwoven with the show's human relationships, helping to make the work both stimulating and entertaining.
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