Directed Suicide: Michael Greif Helms Tony Kushner’s Newest Play

110207stciho meet 546 copy Directed Suicide: Michael Greif Helms Tony Kushner’s Newest PlayDirector Michael Greif’s works have addressed AIDS, mental illness, poverty and self-delusion.

And those are just the musicals.

Brooklyn-born, Mr. Greif has directed Rent, Grey Gardens and Next to Normal on Broadway, to considerable acclaim–Tony nominations for each–and, in the case of Rent, a robust 13-year run. He’s also the director of the current revival at the Signature Theater of Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America, And now Mr. Greif is staging Mr. Kushner’s newest play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures. Performances begin March 22, and it’s set to run through June 12 at the Public Theater.

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide treats a dark subject, too–it concerns a retired longshoreman in Brooklyn, Gus Marcantonio, who asks his three children, an academic, a labor lawyer and a laborer, and his sister, a nun, to come home (some of their partners in tow) to discuss his decision to end his life. One suicide attempt, in the brownstone’s upstairs bath, has already gone awry.

The family fights and roars, negotiates and accuses; all their skeletons, and some cast members, come out of the closet. Suicide is a major theme in the timely show, but so is the sorry state of America, the prospects for continuing social revolution, the institution of marriage, the allure of prostitution, parenthood, sex, the real estate bubble and more.

But Mr. Greif stressed that, as with all of Mr. Kushner’s work, it’s not gloom and doom. “There’s a lot of humor, dark humor, gallows humor, surrounding the subject.” It’s not a “morose or somber” play. It’s also a play that’s very much in the American realist tradition, he said, referencing Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Clifford Odets and other great dramatists. (The show’s title is a riff on George Bernard Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism, and the main character dubs himself a communist.)

“While this is an extremely dark subject matter, there’s an extraordinary vitality in these characters,” he said. “They’re exceedingly intelligent, very articulate, and they take big issues on, throughout the play. So there’s a real life force here, certainly foremost in the man who’s considering ending his life … and in that negotiation with his family.”

He compared the show in some aspects to Grey Gardens, the musical about the lives of the troubled mother and daughter (and Jacqueline Onassis relatives) Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (“Big Edie”) and Edith Bouvier Beale (“Little Edie”). “Edie’s life force is perhaps askew, but what makes her so extraordinarily appealing is that optimism, or that incredible survivor’s instinct,” Mr. Greif said. “We see her knocked down in that musical, and it’s tremendously moving; it’s so out of character. It’s that intensity, that vitality, that struggle, that excitement, that hunger these plays and musicals all share.”

The play premiered at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in the spring of 2009 but is far from set in stone. “We’re still getting new pages and changes as we go into our fifth week of rehearsal,” said the director. “It’s undergoing a real refining process. Tony keeps writing. It’s both clarifying, in this draft, [what] didn’t quite land before, both in terms of what things mean and how things feel. Some things land with a little more clarity and effect in this draft.” Most of the cast is also new in the Public Theater production.

By and large, reviews in Minneapolis were positive. Variety said: “The resulting three-act drama is a success–sprawling, yearning, at times emotionally violent, it is also packed with a level of complexity, sophistication and understanding that distinguishes it as a potentially important new American work.” But the show, performed with two intermissions, is still running at about two hours and 40 minutes.

Mr. Greif first came to widespread attention, on this coast at least (he ran the respected La Jolla Playhouse in California for much of the 1990s), with his 1996 production of Rent, a musical that dealt with a variety of struggles among young New Yorkers. A loose adaptation of La Bohème, set in New York among young bohemians, it takes place in the shadow of the AIDS epidemic. The show’s creator, Jonathan Larson, died just before the premiere Off Broadway, and didn’t see what a success the influential show was to become.

His unexpected passing focused attention on the production and “gave us all a real sense of purpose, and joy, in being able to keep his voice alive.”

Mr. Greif added: “It was almost unthinkable that Jonathan couldn’t share that moment–and see the effect that his work was having on the world. Jonathan wrote the piece in honor of friends of his who were struggling with their own mortality issues, circling with their H.I.V. status at a time when it was merely a death sentence. The irony is in the confluences; they mounted up in tragic ways.”

All the works he’s directed have something in common, Mr. Greif noted. “I’m drawn to material with theatrical challenges, whether that means we move from reality to fantasy like we do in Angels in America, or a play like this play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide, which shifts gears and turns so quickly and excitingly.”

Just as he’s aware of the specific dramatic sense that he wants to find in a musical–treating songs as soliloquies, for example, or duets as scenes–he’s aware of the musicality in plays, too. “Certainly, Tony’s language is almost written as a score,” Mr. Greif said. “The language is very specifically written, and it’s important to follow the specifics of his language. It’s very telling–in the same way that musical notes can be telling in terms of emotional states. A very thorough investigation and a very thorough commitment to his language is like the commitment to music.”

Throughout his career in theater, though, Mr. Greif has found that audiences are looking for the same things. “People like to be surprised, and they also like to be able to believe in the characters they’re seeing onstage,” he says. “They want to be able to believe in something, and they also want to be completely surprised and taken someplace they’d never imagined they’d go. That was true at the beginning of my career, and it seems true now.”