New Work from John Guare

Written by Jonathan Kalb on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

Lydie Breeze—Part
I: Bulfinch’s Mythology; Part II:
The Sacredness of the Next Task
By John Guare

Since this is drama–which
is always about things going wrong, otherwise no one would bother with it–the
very mention of utopia sets one looking right away for the seeds of failure,
and sure enough, these are displayed before the first play is half an hour old.
The commune is short of money, and the members must occasionally leave to earn
cash from “the enemy.” The pretentiously intellectual Joshua Hickman
(Bill Camp) has had his magnum opus, Prolegomena to Duty, ignominiously
rejected by William Dean Howells of The Atlantic Monthly. Joshua’s
marriage to Lydie, ostensibly a technical trifle meant to lend the group the
requisite respectability for residence on the island, has become real in his
mind, introducing jealousy and dishonesty into the paradise. Amos Mason (Boris
McGiver), lonely, disillusioned, half-literate and a butt of ridicule, wants
to leave to get an education, and Dan Grady (Matt Servitto), bullishly cheerful
and sexually reckless, arrives with a bag of ill-gotten cash that he’s
convinced will solve everything.

Apart from the fascination
and appeal of these wonderfully colorful people, the most beautiful aspect of
this story is the way Guare conceived it on both a large and a small canvas.
Countless other contemporary playwrights have tried to use 19th-century settings
to clear away the overfamiliar impedimenta of modernity to make room for more
basic questions, and ended up merely with dry, pedantic history. Guare’s
landscape, by contrast, feels truly cleared and essentialized, the keys to this
being his humor (which somehow manages to be both deflating and ennobling) and
his oddly gentle touch with heavy references. He puts his finger on quintessentially
American corruptions without sacrificing any of the prurient allure of personal
detail. (See Lydie’s gorgeous description of her miscarriage, for instance,
in a short scene that also touches on the neglect of children, the exorbitant
cost of higher education and the exploitation of local mill workers.) He also
captures the full breath of grandiosity and monumental optimism of the age (wrapping
the action in imposing quotations from Bulfinch and Whitman, for instance),
without falling into cheaply romantic nostalgia.

The biggest weakness of
Bulfinch’s Mythology is in the premise of its second act, which
takes place nine years later in a Boston prison where Joshua is confined for
murdering Dan. It’s just not plausible that a man with Joshua’s intelligence
didn’t already know when he went off “to find [his] gods” in
Europe that Dan was going to steal his girl. Despite that, though, the act is
marvelously acted and contains some lovely writing that deepens the questions
subtly raised earlier about ideal ambition and its costs to those close to the
dreamer. Amos, now a top-hatted lawyer who has overcome his speech impediment
and gained political ambition, has great poise and heft as acted by McGiver,
and Marvel’s entrance as the wasted Lydie is itself sufficient reason to
see the show.

Starving, sick with fever,
dressed in borrowed clothes that completely cover the body she was so eager
to uncorset back on Nantucket, her voice shockingly hoarse, she is a macabre,
horrible presence who knocks the play instantly off the cerebral perch it has
occasionally rested on with its protuberant references to Robinson Crusoe
and The Count of Monte Cristo and exploited mill workers (a novelty in
this revision). What humans conceive, she seems to say with her presence, must
be built, lived in and lived out by humans in all their imperfection. Philosophical
Joshua, in the end, appears as a sort of American Gregers Werle (Ibsen’s
destructive idealist in The Wild Duck), a man who possesses a heart of
sorts but who lacks the foresight and empathy to understand his effect on the
world beyond the plane of his bold ideas (a trope for his ambition). “In
all our dreaming,” he says, “we never allowed for the squalid, petty
furies. We lived on a beach in a vast landscape. We mistook the size of the
ocean, the size of the sky for the size of our souls.” Unfortunately, The
Sacredness of the Next Task
has little to compare with all this. Its solemn
title notwithstanding, this play is jarringly flippant, feeding the themes and
problems of the elegantly structured Bulfinch’s Mythology into a
sort of soap operatic gift-wrap-machine. On one account, I do feel grateful
for this glib and transparent second play, because it was the original source
of a crucial character–Beaty, a young Irish girl who joins the commune
as a domestic worker–whom Guare introduced into the first play in this
revision. The role of Beaty in Bulfinch offers terrific opportunities
for the marvelous actress Joanna Adler, coming off as lucid, richly strange
and flush with understated vitality. The same role, with the same actress, comes
off as stagy, strained and grandiloquent in Sacredness, a sadly explicit
testimony to the diminishing effect of the play.

Set in 1895 and focusing
on the fates of Beaty, the older Joshua, Lydie’s two grown daughters and
Dan’s grown son, this play is a veritable catalog of sensational revelations
about such matters as suicide, syphilis, rape and child molestation. It is chock-full
of classical allusions–mostly to Hamlet and Ghosts–that
are as clumsy and contrived as the earlier ones were apt and penetrating, and
its plot is so convoluted that the emotional impact of entire scenes is lost.
(If anyone can explain to me exactly what Beaty thinks happened to her years
ago on the beach, for instance, I’m on pins and needles.) Guare leaves
the impression that he simply tired of following the internal demands of his
story and characters after completing the first play and resorted to schemas
drawn from his prodigious reading to craft the second.

The director Kubovy, too,
shows a much surer hand on Bulfinch than on Sacredness. Working
with a handsome and cleverly versatile set by Neil Patel–a flat wood-slat
floor that rolls up into a sand dune on one side, with a stucco wall and stairs
to a second-level walkway at back–Kubovy proves extremely resourceful at
maintaining a crucial sense of communal fun early on (Dan slapping a fish, for
instance, or Lydie spitting wine at Amos or Amos hopping clownishly down the
steps). As the productions go on, however, the sense of ensemble (fun or otherwise)
grows more and more uncertain, and the physical business in Sacredness
is frequently trite and obvious (the dead Lydie’s teenage daughter Lydie,
for instance, clings to the rope mom used to hang herself like an obscene totem).
There are certainly many light comic pleasures in Sacredness (among them
Alexandra Oliver’s gritty performance as the older, streetwise daughter
Gussie). In general, though, even the successful comedy reads as a misguided
effort to magnify what was already more than sufficiently enlarged.

New York Theater Workshop,
79 E. 4th St. (betw. Bowery & 2nd Ave.), 460-5475, through July 2.