General Enthusiasm

It would be no fun, though, to feast on the acting if brilliant conversation weren't the main course. Starting with the implied challenge of its title—from Emerson's apothegm, "History is no more than the biography of a few stout individuals"—Guare's serving tray is piled high with ideas, treated not abstractly but as sources of passion and cues for action. Not for the first time, his engaging, clashing, fanciful heaps of talk evoke another admirer of Clemens, Bernard Shaw. Guare has Shaw's trick of puncturing empty pieties with a single blunt remark, of seeing a dilemma from both sides, of sweeping away malicious specifics in a general tide of compassion. And he applies these to his own themes, with his own, distinctively Guareian sense of humor. Once again, a Guare character talks about selling the rights to his death; tabloid journalism and the popular mind will get kicked around; Nantucket, scene of Lydie Breeze, gets a surprise reprise. And the party favor, a running gag that encapsulates the play's puckish way of seeing America from the wrong end of a telescope, is a set of negative views of the not-yet-erected Statue of Liberty. Because Guare knows that America, like any infant, has to be turned upside down and burped occasionally, or it'll never learn how to digest all the history it's been fed.

Speaking of history, Noël Coward's Long Island Sound has been rescued from its deeper shadows by the Actors Company Theatre, and here again some measured enthusiasm is called for—somewhat less of that commodity than in Guare's case, since the author's long dead and this previously unproduced work needs a smartly trimmed new draft. At one time called House Party, the play began life in reaction to Coward's entrapment at painful domestic fiestas on the Riviera, and came to fruition after a truly nightmarish Hamptons weekend with the celebrity-chasing socialite Cobina Wright. Depicting himself as a meekly polite, faintly dim English novelist who knows next to nothing about America, Coward peopled the alcohol-drenched action with a shooting gallery's worth of obnoxious upscale types from the ranks of Wall Street, showbiz, high fashion, and the Four Hundred. Add sugar and strychnine, stir, then wait for explosion.

Yaegashi, Sadler, Moffat, and Holliday in A Few Stout Individuals: Grant proposals
photo: Susan Johann
Yaegashi, Sadler, Moffat, and Holliday in A Few Stout Individuals: Grant proposals


A Few Stout Individuals
By John Guare
Signature Theatre
555 West 42nd Street

Long Island Sound
By NoŽl Coward
American Theatre of Actors
314 West 54th Street

Much of the mixture still tickles the taste buds, despite its age and the borrowed nature of some of the ingredients—including an adulterous cowboy star filched not only from his wife but from The Women's Countess Delage. Coward's eye for social behavior, his ear for the local diction, his road-guide's instinct for where the land mines were buried, are all in good working order. In rehearsal, he would have pruned out the repetitions; and he would certainly have insisted on a sharper and more buoyant production than Scott Alan Evans's, which is workable but no more. The large cast has some pretty enlivening performances, though, starting with Simon Jones, haplessness incarnate as the innocent visitor. Not far behind are Cynthia Harris as his nerve-racked hostess, Rob Breckenridge as a movie star of indecisive gender preference, Delphi Harrington as a collapsible singing star, Greg McFadden and Julie Halston as a squabbling playwright-actress duo, and Rebecca Wisocky as the cowboy's possessive Beacon Hill spouse. The evening wants shaping and toning, but the flecks of first-rate Coward scattered throughout make it well worthwhile.

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