Past Shock

Written in 1978, John Guare's Marco Polo takes place in a 1999 that still seems fairly distant, though some of Guare's predictions are amazingly close to the mark in their off-kilter way. Like all good futurology, though, Guare's comedy is chiefly concerned with the past, that hideous mess the future is supposed to build on and hopefully transcend. And what a mess it is. The heroine, Diane, a concert pianist whose celebrity and beauty enrapture all the males around her, drifts haplessly from one entanglement to another. A child prodigy, she gave up her career when, as she recounts in one of the play's two best-known monologues, the great composers started to appear on her keyboard as dirty old men in raincoats, begging her to jerk them back to life. Diane's husband, Stony, the equally hapless and tormented son of celebrity porn stars from the now-mythic '60s, has tried to escape the world by moving with her to the tip of a Norwegian glacier, where he is filming an epic on the journeys of Marco Polo. Naturally, this doesn't stop the man Diane thinks she loves, Tom, a power-hungry political string-puller, from flying up to lure her out of her marriage--which, he is warned, doesn't mean taking her away from her third follower, Larry, who has lost his legs in an encounter with Diane's automobile and now lavishes doglike adoration on her in lieu of blame.

Apart from the demented flashes of world news supplied by Tom--Hawaii and Italy have been sunk by earthquakes, Middle East peace talks have resulted in the creation of "Saudi Israel"--little of this is futuristic, even for 1978. Science impinges on our glacier-bound quadrangle through the subplot, involving another world hero, the astronaut Frank Schaeffer, who has been circling the universe for years in search of "the planet that can feed the world." Schaeffer and his wife, Skippy, are the celebrities' celebrities, objects of idolization and envy. The characters think Skippy is being held hostage in the White House--in the Lincoln Bedroom, appropriately--where she will be impregnated from outer space by "nuclear bolts" carrying Frank's semen. What they don't know is that she has escaped to their glacier, disguised as a Norwegian servant, and that Frank has come down to earth in pursuit of her.

Skippy's nuclear insemination precipitates all manner of disasters and mutations, including a rerouting of the Gulf Stream to the Arctic, so that flash-frozen tropical birds litter the landscape, inspiring Guare's most gloriously preposterous line: "I don't know much about symbols, but I'd say when frozen flamingos fall out of the sky, good times are not in store." And, indeed, they aren't. The few scraps of happiness and understanding that wait for a few surviving characters at the end must be scraped off the wreckage of the present, with future menaces waiting just offstage. Chaos, somebody remarks early on, is the natural condition of life; accepting it is the best thing we can do.

From left, Judith Hawking, Jack Koenig, and Bruce Norris in Marco Polo: the ternal quadrangle and frozen flamingos too
Susan Johann
From left, Judith Hawking, Jack Koenig, and Bruce Norris in Marco Polo: the ternal quadrangle and frozen flamingos too


Marco Polo Sings a Solo
By John Guare
Signature Theatre
555 West 42nd Street

'Caught in the Act: Programs A, B, & C'
145 Sixth Avenue

If this sounds like a nervous playwright's defense against critical carping, Guare at any rate makes it convincing as a key to the loopy, digressive dream world of his play, which is neither fantasy nor realism but a sort of thinking man's after-dinner nightmare in which the two get jumbled together. In some respects, Marco Polo is the quintessential Guare play, crowded with all his preoccupations, his themes, his tactics, and all the literary bad habits he can't resist: his cuteness (Stony's mother singing the hit '60s show tune, "It's the ending of the Age of Pisces"); his contorted preciosity (Stony's speech alleging that plants seek life and animals death); his obsession with power and fame ("I have the cure for cancer here in my pocket"); his fondness for elaborate strings of coincidence. And, of course, it has in excelsis the flamboyant, compulsive stream of talk in which he ironizes his way past all these indulgences, turning every hokey laugh into a stroke of tragedy and every cheapness into a witty surprise. If the truth, as Oscar Wilde remarked, "is rarely pure and never simple," John Guare must be the most truthful playwright in history. Either that or his defense mechanisms are so elaborately entrenched, the excavators of Tutankhamen's tomb would have trouble breaking through.

Still, Guare's ornateness makes for a theatrical experience like no other; the only analogue I can think of for it is Baroque opera, with its simple dilemmas conveyed by cascades of notes and insane flights of bravura display. As with opera seria, his style requires a special mastery, from directors and performers, that it rarely gets. Mel Shapiro, a longtime colleague who staged the original production of Marco Polo, has done rather well by this one, which boasts a strong if less starry cast. At the start you can almost feel the actors' uncertainty, but things improve quickly. Bruce Norris and Judith Hawking, as Stony and Diane, ride their euphuistic monologues with skill and feeling, Chuck Cooper's Frank has a welcome heartiness, and Polly Holiday, faced with the decathlon-level role of Stony's unbalanced mother, deserves at least the bronze for getting through the whole event so gracefully.

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