American Madness

"We lived in a vast landscape. We mistook [its] size for the size of our souls." The line is from John Guare's reworked version of Lydie Breeze, but it could be the epigraph to The Laramie Project. Guare's fictional 19th-century commune on Nantucket, living and dying off tainted money and poisoned ideals, is only a hairsbreadth away from the dazed, griefstruck small city, trying to puzzle its way out of its now blood-smeared complacency. The quasi-hero of Guare's epic kills his best friend. Matthew Shepard, the martyr of Laramie, was killed by men nearly as young and unformed as himself. From duneside to mountainside, from sea to shiningly polluted, oil-slick sea, something is severely wrong with America, and always has been. The land, the water, the sky, those seemingly open invitations to humility and generosity, have instead provoked centuries of slaughter, bigotry, and greed.

The five-hour saga that John Guare has been struggling to put into final form for so many years revolves around a woman and three men in a house they call Aipotu—utopia spelled backward. Superficially, it couldn't be more different from Laramie, a ranchers' and herders' town tucked away in mountainous, landlocked vistas. Yet Laramie's people subscribe to the same credo as Aipotu's drifters and dreamers, the freedom to "live and let live." Like all generalities, the phrase conceals more than it reveals. A local homophile, one of the many Laramie residents interviewed by Moisés Kaufman's company for The Laramie Project, supplies a translation: "It means if I don't tell you I'm gay, then you won't beat me up." Even spelled backward, that's nobody's definition of utopia.

Kaufman's cast members, some of whom were also among his fellow interviewers (most of the others are credited as "dramaturgs"), fan out across the stage, playing not only friends of Shepard's and people intimately connected to the case, but neighbors, onlookers, authority figures, and anonymous voices. They play themselves, too: Strangers who go to Laramie and ask discomfiting questions inevitably become part of the story. Strangers, in a sense, are its key: "My secret hope," one Laramie resident says of Shepard's killers, "was that they would turn out to be from somewhere else." Few playwrights have cut to the heart of tragedy so unerringly. The myth that automatically attributes criminality to strangers is the one that causes hate crimes—in which, in point of fact, the stranger is more often the victim, while the perpetrator is someone "everybody" knows. Matthew Shepard, part of the university's transient student population, was a comparative stranger to Laramie; his killers were locals. The townspeople who speak to and through Kaufman's company are at first understandably resentful that the world media should view their town as a swamp of prejudices, but there turns out to be a great deal that "everybody" in Laramie doesn't know about the neighbors. In this respect, it isn't a plague spot, only an average collection of human beings.

Elizabeth Marvel as Lydie Breeze: united states of denial
photo: Joan Marcus
Elizabeth Marvel as Lydie Breeze: united states of denial


Lydie Breeze, Parts I & II
By John Guare
New York Theatre Workshop
79 East 4th Street

The Laramie Project
By Moisťs Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater
Union Square Theatre
100 East 17th Street

The characteristically American fault that keeps the bigotry burning underneath isn't some special school for inculcating hatred, but the denial that hatred exists, the desire to pretend that everything's okay as long as there's no overt violence. In Kaufman'a astute selection of material, the two most offensive presences are non-Laramieans. One is "Reverend" Fred Phelps, busily spreading hate even at Shepard's funeral—where his message was topped by the local initiative of silent "angels." The other arrived by e-mail at the desk of Rulon Stacey, CEO of the hospital where Shepard died: Having broken down in tears on TV while giving this news to the world, he found, among the condolences, the message, "Do you only cry for your fag patients?" Clearly, you don't need to live in Laramie to be crazy.

Guare's characters are also great ones for denial: Independent-minded Lydie Breeze, a nurse in the Civil War, picks out three wounded veterans to be her communal husbands, failing to see that they come for her and the main chance, not for any Whitman-esque dream of love or socialism. Daydreaming Joshua wants to write the great book on humanity's future; hedonistic Dan shows up with a son by a previous wife and a satchel full of ill-gotten cash; drudging, semiliterate Amos longs for education and success. Ideals, peaceful and beautiful, fly through their dialogue; underneath lurk hatred, selfishness, murder, madness, blackmail, disease, and death, along with maltreated immigrants, abused children, and irrecoverable damage to nature. It's an American story.

Painful in substance, Lydie Breeze is largely comic in treatment. Guare loves history the way Laramie loves its tradition of tolerance, but playfully; everything has a story attached, and the stories can distract you with their dazzle. At the same time, he loves to twist events and their consequences into puckish Miró-esque shapes. The difficulty with earlier versions was that the innumerable disparate elements made you keep losing the thread. This time around, the work is tight, clarified, sequential—and with enough data flooding through it to make any of Guare's fellow bookmeisters beam with pleasure at his fidelity to historical fact, even when his events or characters are at their most outrageous. The work has the dense feel of an almanac: While you watch American dreams go wrong, you can learn about bird-banding, or typesetting, or how to cook soft-shell crabs.

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