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.
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.
But any event can be got through with grace if there are sufficient pleasures along the way. I, for instance, got through all three evenings of this year’s “Caught in the Act” festival, and it wasn’t always easy going. Not that I propose to give myself a medal, already having the fine gold. I’d just like to offer a few complaints, and then hand out a few awards to the more notable participants. First, the management answered my objection to the overuse of a single Shostakovich piece between plays in last year’s festival by doing the same thing this year with an even more nerve-jangling piece of pizzicato Bartok or somebody. To me, the plays offer enough food for thought without putting difficult music between them, and the insistence on heavy earnestness is one of the festival’s major defects. Pieces that aren’t worth doing–this year’s entries were by Laszlo, Briusov, and Paskandi–don’t become so just because they’re meaningfully Absurd. And plays that are slight should be enjoyed for their slightness: This year’s saddest item was the Quintero brothers’ delicious vaudeville sketch, A Sunny Morning, funereally directed by the esteemed Therese Hayden, with only a few flashes from Jacqueline Brookes’s eyes to hint at the fun hidden in it. Twentieth-century artists have had a lot of fun in the theater, a fact of which the festival doesn’t always seem aware.
My top award, though, goes to a work of pure fun: Dario Fo and Franca Rame’s The Open Couple, as staged by John Christopher Jones, with Tom Mardirosian and Frederica Meister having what’s apparently the time of their lives. The breathless speed and rousing vitality with which they live every moment and catch every ironic twist is as astonishing to me as the script, which has a subtlety I don’t associate with Fo’s caustic mix of slapstick and satire. Nearly as funny, until its pain hits home, is Moment of Truth, by Arthur Schnitzler, better known for his subtlety. Freud once wrote Schnitzler that he had never sought him out “because I was afraid I might meet my Doppelgänger.” This play’s richly layered characters, and the multiple ironies of their ultimately tragic interaction, make up a Freudian casebook; Marcia Jean Kurtz’s staging articulated it elegantly, with a specially touching performance by Michael Countryman.
The reliability award goes to Warren Kelley, director of last year’s standout piece, Arrabal’s The Two Executioners. This year he performed, with energy and panache, a fairly forgettable monologue by Mrozek, and staged another Arrabal, Orison, with the sardonic darkness of the first; its bleakly funny script, about two evil adolescents attempting to be virtuous, should be required viewing wherever Americans bludgeon their children with our peculiarly fucked-up version of Christianity. There was reliability, too, from actors like John Michalski, who almost made one of the Paskandi sketches seem worth playing, and David Heymann, who followed the–alas, predictable–twists and turns of the lead role in Tankred Dorst’s The Curve with moving persistence.