By Adam Markovitz
Updated May 06, 2011 at 09:40 PM EDT
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Credit: Joan Marcus

The newest drama from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America) has a doozy of a title — The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. But the 2009 play, which officially opened Off Broadway last night at NYC’s Public Theater, has a simple premise: A father, frightened by old age and the possibility of Alzheimer’s disease, asks his grown children for permission to commit suicide.

In the excerpt below, Gus (Michael Cristofer), a former labor union organizer, attempts to explain his motives to his daughter, Empty (played by Linda Emond, and so called because of the initials of her given name, Maria Teresa), while his sister Clio (Brenda Wehle) and gay son Pill (Stephen Spinella) listen. “Gus has called his children together to talk about his desire to commit suicide, and he’s describing his world as a prison,” says Kushner (whose husband is EW columnist Mark Harris). “Who the jailer is, and who jails whom, becomes one of the things the play struggles with.”

Check out the full excerpt, then read on for Kushner’s analysis of the scene.

“The play is very much about labor unions and the relationship of workers to the work they do and to their jobs,” explains Kushner, who says the work was partly inspired by two strikes that affected the showbiz community a few years ago. “When I was beginning to seriously get to work on the play, the Writer’s Guild had just gone on strike, so I had been on picket lines. And right around that time Local One, the stagehands’ union, went on strike. And that, I think, was the big determining factor for me.”

There were also more sentimental factors at work. “I’m 54 years old. My father is still alive, thank God, but he’s 87 years old, and I’ve seen a lot of people of that generation pass away,” says Kushner. “A lot of my plays have origins in the way that I’m unconsciously processing grief or loss.”

The image of the printer was partially inspired by Kushner’s research for an unrealized project: a movie about the Daily News strike of the early 1990s. Kushner was given a tour of the Daily News building, which still used old-fashioned printing presses and lead type at the time. “That was such a medieval thing to think that at the top of this magnificent skyscraper there are these vats of molten lead and these guys who would work in lead type, the compositors,” he recalls. “And I think that’s where this guy first appeared in my mind.”

According to Kushner, Gus chooses this particular image because he relates to the printer’s feelings of imprisonment and uselessness. “[The printer] can’t work. He can’t do anything now. He’s on a ventilator. He’s become quite literally imprisoned,” says Kushner. “The control of his life has been taken out of his hands, so he finds a way to take it back. It’s a refusal to be the prisoner of time, to be the subject of time.”

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