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theatre review

The ensemble cast shine in director Eda Holmes’s production of the Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.David Cooper

For the fiercest, finest displays of acting at the Shaw Festival this season, book a ticket to The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.

The crème de la crème of the Shaw ensemble can be found getting wasted on words, words, words in Eda Holmes's as close to perfection as possible production of this 2009 play by Tony Kushner of Angels in America fame.

Set in 2007, iHO – as the Shaw is abbreviating the play for Twitter's sake – takes place at the Brooklyn brownstone of the leftist Italian-American Marcantonio family.

At the age of 72, patriarch Gus (Jim Mezon, marvellous) still holds membership in the Communist Party – but is ready to resign from life itself. He has gathered his three children together to tell them of his intention to commit suicide. But each of his offspring is occupied with other problems.

Pill (Steven Sutcliffe, shimmering with self-loathing), a high school English teacher haunted by his abandoned PhD, is torn between the saintly theologian he is married to and a Yale-educated hustler (a steamy Ben Sanders) – and mistakenly believes there's a utopia where he can have both.

Meanwhile, labour lawyer M.T. (Kelli Fox, ferocious) has a partner who is about to give birth, but is still sleeping with her ex-husband, Adam, (the very funny Thom Marriott) who happens to live in her father's basement.

Then there's Vito (Gray Powell, wielding silence violently), the only one in this working-class family who is actually a worker – and who is considered the most conservative of the bunch because he simply identifies as a Democrat.

Over nearly four hours (with two intermissions), the Marcantonios and their partners, past and present – plus Fiona Reid, brilliantly sage as Gus's ex-Maoist sister – try to prevent a suicide amid epic, overlapping, delirious arguments.

The logorrheic title is a sign of what to expect. It refers in part to Bernard Shaw's 1928 pamphlet, The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism, with a coda borrowed from Mary Baker Eddy's Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures – an 1875 foundational text of Christian Science.

If it has you headed to a search engine, wait until you get to the dialogue where the names dropped range from Italian-American anarchist Gaetano Bresci to theosophical poet Robert Duncan. Then there's the religious studies rhetoric used by Pill's African-American academic husband (Andre Sills, comic, yet commanding) and Empty's partner (Diana Donnelly, less than convincing) who calls herself as "an apophatic theologian with pronounced kataphatic inclinations." (The characters in the play all seem to know what this means; the only reference that anyone doesn't get in the play is to Yoda.)

One critic dismissed iHO on its New York premiere as an "intellectual turducken," a funny line, but one that somewhat misses the point – not to mention underestimates the tastiness of a chicken in a duck in a turkey.

In the first scene of the play, Pill describes a production of Major Barbara – hopefully not an esoteric reference for the Shaw audience – as having given him a head-rush similar to "poppers or speed or E." Then, he starts to pick apart the playwright's political blindspots gleefully.

That's the kind of pleasure on offer from iHO – and Holmes, on Peter Hartwell's elegant Brooklyn Bridge and shipping container-inspired set, directs Kushner's dizzying dialectic like a swirling symphony, for musicality as much as anything. Her kinetic production is more convincing than the original one in New York, which did get too stuck in its characters' heads, making it somewhat meaningless if you didn't share their myopia.

Paul Sportelli's score helps with understanding, playing with music from the last century and a half the way Kushner's script does with ideas from the same time period, ghosts of Verdi and Gershwin dancing with electronica.

It's dominated by a pair of arguing saxophones – an appropriate instrument, patented just two years before Marx and Engels published The Communist Manifesto.

Like Pill with Shaw, you can argue with Kushner's (or his characters') politics. You'll either admire or be appalled by the chutzpah of a script where you can hear a sympathetic defence of the Hitler-Stalin pact or where the most loveable character is an ex-member of the Shining Path. I do wish that Sooze – Vito's Korean-American wife, played here by Jasmine Chen – seemed to exist for more than the purpose of letting Gus off the hook for his opposition to the Korean war.

The only real disappointment of Kushner's play comes in the way it dangles real estate schemes and secret inseminations and hidden briefcases in front of an audience and then yanks them away. Even the justification behind Gus's potential suicide slips and slides – he wants to sell the house while the market is high, he feels guilty for being insufficiently ideological pure, he is afraid of Alzheimer's disease. His (in)action is a metaphor for the death of a political idea, yes, but what is the thing itself?

And yet, the fireworks generated by iHO are undeniably thrilling with the Shaw actors filling their characters up to the brim. I'm not going to fall into the trap that Gus and Pill do, and refuse to be satisfied with anything less than utopia.

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