American Madness

But, of course, the one thing you can't learn is why Americans, as a nation, resist reality, spread out before them on such a huge and splendid scale. It can't be religion, or a carryover from Europe; both Guare's people and Laramie's are very far from the latter, while the former, as seen in The Laramie Project, is just a set of discordant and perplexed voices like everyone else's. In Guare's play, the philosopher is the murderer: "We used to dream here," he tells his victim's son, long after the crime, "but we never trusted our dreams. We only trust the itch in the pocket."

But Guare's characters are shown spanning decades. Aaron James McKinney, whose entire human encounter with Matthew Shepard lasted barely a third of the time it takes to perform Guare's play, only said, "He tried to put his hand on my dick." Here, too, decades of experience were adduced (later, by his defense lawyers): childhood sexual abuse, poverty, drink, drugs. They go largely unmentioned in The Laramie Project because they have nothing to do with Matthew Shepard; a hate crime is an abstract entity. The victim has been selected because he fits a pattern and is there, not because he is a specific person; his personhood is the thing being killed.

Insane by their own internal logic as well as by ours, such acts retain the mystery of gestures mechanically performed in a void. What Shepard's murderers did was far in excess of any assignable cause. Put in the nationwide context of Columbine and dragging deaths, serial killings, and gay bashings, it suggests an America so far removed from sanity that even a writer of Guare's extravagance would have trouble encompassing it.

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

Not that he hasn't come close: Lydie Breeze lays out the 19th century with its parallels to the 20th in plain view. The little corruptions that add up, as big corporate crimes, to poison the land and oppress the poor, are the spine of his grimly funny parable. On Neil Patel's broad, windswept set, Itamar Kubovy stages it with strong focus, occasionally pushing the harshness too hard. Going through a full day with the actors, you come to cherish the characters as loony, compulsively talkative friends: Bill Camp's dryly hapless Joshua; Boris McIver's Amos, a gawky stammerer gaining stature and polish; Alexandra Oliver, vividly coarse and funny as Lydie's elder daughter; Elizabeth Marvel, gliding invisibly from tart to seductive to embittered as Lydie herself. Two unexpected prizes are Jefferson Mays, cunningly using 1890s actor-tactics to evoke an actor of the period, and Joanna P. Adler, whose gift for big, raw emotions is starting to be matched by one for sheer transformation, as into this play's Irish nursemaid.

Not all the acting in The Laramie Project is so cogent, though Greg Pierotti, Amanda Gronich, and Stephen Belber do consistently sharp work. But here it's more important to evoke than to incarnate: The company's success is that you feel the presence onstage of a whole town full of people—abetted by Kaufman's discreet, fluid staging, a great improvement over Gross Indecency. The residents of Laramie seem like a group you might find in any town, a fact that is itself a victory over prejudice; they speak with dignity. But in a town of thirty thousand, it only takes two to spoil the dignified effect. It will be very hard to love Laramie—to love America—until we understand why it creates so many versions of Aaron James McKinney and Russell Arthur Henderson. "In all our dreaming," says Guare's Joshua, "we never allowed for the squalid, petty Furies . . . I want to look our petty Furies in the face, and name them, and lose them." If that is how you lose Furies, I hope someone names them quickly.

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