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Two New Plays: Of Church and Theater

Would that all family talks were so well lit. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

There’s a mythical, religious undertone in two new shows off-Broadway, “Go Back to Where You Are” (at Playwrights Horizons), and “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures” (at the Public).

“Go Back,” written by and starring David Greenspan, is a breezy breath of a play, a stream-of-conscious trip to Montauk by way of ancient Greece. Greenspan plays a displaced actor from BC times, one who probably “originated roles” in “world premieres” of plays like “Oedipus Rex” and “Medea.” (!) In true Greenspan, shape-shifting fashion, he assumes two contemporary personalities — the first, a depressed lover; the second, a dowdy, British librarian.

As these characters, Passalus (Greenspan) delivers random acts of compassion. (My favorite: He tells a self-deprecating regional actress, “I loved your Mrs. Gibbs;” that reference to a far-flung production of “Our Town” makes the woman’s day, if not her career.) Passalus spreads this kindness because he is sent from Zeus to commit a single act of goodness. (I think, at least — this part of the narrative is the haziest.) But when faced with pervasive, quiet sadness, he can’t help but do more. The end is simple and melancholic and sweet.

In contrast to “Go Back’s” economy, “Intelligent Homosexual” is just as monumental and ambitious as you’d expect a new, four-hour Tony Kushner play to be. In it, a Brooklyn union man invites his children home to vote whether he should kill himself; the fallout is a series of the most high-stakes scenes imaginable.

“Intelligent” is a very, very unsettling play — its manifold ambiguities and authorial vulnerabilities make “Angels in America” look positively single-minded by comparison (and it isn’t!) The play’s unending, internal dialectic gives it a discomforting authenticity that makes it a difficult one to talk about; each “theme” (labor, death, life, sexuality, politics, family, etc.) is used to such complete character-driven, dramatic effect that it’s hard not to implicate yourself.

Kushner has, of course, done that — implicated himself — in the play. You can feel him just below the surface, letting doubts and insecurities bravely take stage space alongside the powerful Kushnerian discourses you expect. His characters feel things publicly that are usually deeply private, the patriarch’s methodical and unsentimental urge to kill himself, for one.

“Intelligent Homosexual” is mythical and religious, then, in the sense that it persistently probes metaphysical, soul-oriented subjects. It makes the theater a kind of temple, the play a kind of ambivalent sermon.

“Go Back,” too, derives a similar ethos (albeit less heavy) from the assumption that the theater is secularism’s take on ritual and sacrament. Passalus himself uses a kind of theater, role-playing, to stimulate redemption and salvation.

Playwright Steven Drukman talks about the theater and religion in an interview with David Greenspan himself. Drukman says, “There’s a new book about tragedy by the great Marxist scholar Terry Eagleton, and he argues quite convincingly that the cultural left needs to resurrect some theological ideas, and he shows how tragedy does that for us in the theater. And there’s something about a life in the theater that is like a life in the church, too.” (Read the fascinating discussion, from Bomb magazine, here.)

“Go Back” and “Intelligent Homosexual” are, like religion, both upsetting and uplifting. That duality makes them compelling theater and spiritual tonic.

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