Dapper as ever in his tweed sports jacket, John Guare glides down the new 42nd Street with a college boy’s ebullience. His white shock of hair somehow accentuates his youthful gait as he dashes boldly into the crowded intersection. Greeting me by clasping hold of my arm, he weaves the two of us in and out of traffic while reeling off a deliriously fictitious biography that fixes his place of birth high in the mountains of Tibet.
Like a character in one of his plays, Guare lives his life as a continual act of improvisation. It’s as though he exists exclusively in the present tense, even when thinking about the past. Though we’ve reached the Signature Theater, where he’s currently playwright-in-residence, he’s not quite ready to discuss the who, what, where, why, and when of this year’s Guare season. Instead, he’d rather reenact a scene from a few weeks ago when the two of us bumped into each other after the opening of Electra at the McCarter Theater. The late-night train from Princeton was buzzing with theater people, and there was Guare in the MC role he was born to play, chatting with young playwrights before banishing Claire Bloom, who played the murderous Clytemnestra, with a monologue that could have come straight off his typewriter.
”I have no interest in looking back on my work,” he says, finally settling down at a nearby diner to talk about what the Signature season means to him. An odd sentiment, given the impressive retrospectives the theater has provided in recent years of such playwrights as Edward Albee, Adrienne Kennedy, Sam Shepard, and Arthur Miller. But, like the finest actors, Guare’s attention is fiendishly ”in” the moment. ”If I hadn’t written a new play, I would have thanked [Signature artistic director] Jim Houghton very much for his offer and told him no,” he explains. ”For me, plays are just something you do before going on to the next one.”
His long-in-the-making Lydie Breeze trilogy, however, hasn’t been so easy to leave behind. For the past 16 years, Guare has been unable to figure out the middle section of this loopy tragedy about two 19th-century Nantucket families connected through generations by murder and infidelity. The project, which began as a way to venture into territory beyond contemporary New York neurosis, became for him as nagging as a loose tooth. But days before Houghton’s unexpected call, he managed to complete the missing piece–The Book of Judah, his first new play since Four Baboons Adoring the Sun in 1992.
The opportunity to see the entire trilogy done in rotating repertory was impossible for him to pass up, though that left two slots to fill in the Signature bill, and Guare was uncharacteristically short on ideas. ”One thing I knew for sure was that I didn’t want to do House of Blue Leaves or Six Degrees of Separation,” Guare says, tired of being defined solely by his two most acclaimed comedies. ”What I love about Jim is that he told me he wanted to do any of my plays but those.”
With the rest of his canon nerve-wrackingly open for discussion, Guare instinctively picked up the phone and called his old-time friend and collaborator Mel Shapiro. ”We haven’t worked together in 19 years, since we did Bosoms and Neglect at Stratford, and I missed him,” Guare recollects. ”The two of us have never once had a fight. My wife tells me that I laugh harder when Mel’s around than with anybody else. So I told him he had to come back to New York and direct the first show.”
The choice of plays was left up to Shapiro, though no one was prepared for his reply–Marco Polo Sings a Solo, Guare’s 1977 comedy about a man trying to keep his marriage together while shooting a film on an iceberg in Norway at the tail end of the 20th century. The play was pretty much a no-go with the critics when it premiered under Shapiro’s direction at the Public Theater, and Guare had already made clear he had no intention of revising his previous self. ”For better or worse this is what I wrote,” Guare says. ”No changes.”
Though Marco Polo is certainly a daring choice to open the season, in many ways it’s
also a perfect one. The play flaunts the author’s virtues and flaws to an almost giddy degree.
Actors have to contend with impossibly long verbal riffs, and the acrobatic plot occasionally
oses control of its trampoline effect. In return, though, Guare provides a farcical space in which his characters’ inner lives reveal themselves as though held together in a common dream.
Guare’s refusal to pick up a blue pencil suggests he’s aware that the source of his early work’s pleasure may be inextricably bound up with its unbridled tendencies. To tamper at this point would only distort the portrait of a young artist learning how to use a palette that includes space-age spermatozoa, transsexual pregnancies, and something known as veal wine.
While LydieBreeze looks to a loosely historical past and Marco Polo to an alternate-universe future, Bosoms and Neglect, which has been designated second-at-bat in the Signature lineup, is set in what Guare calls the ”generic now.” A cult favorite in the late ’70s, Bosoms grapples with an incompletely psychoanalyzed character’s love-hate relationship with his dying mother. In typical Guare fashion, this well-observed comedy erupts into the most floridly theatrical violence–the better to release those unconsciously lodged, therapy-resistant family truths.
Impolite questions about the presumed autobiographical references of his work are met with a shrug. ”It’s all wish fulfillment,” he says. ”I wrote House of Blue Leaves precisely because I wasn’t in New York when the Pope arrived in Queens. While I was hitching around Egypt trying to see the world, the world came to my parents. You write what should have happened.”
For someone who never fails to find ways of exploiting life’s unexpected twists, Guare seems unusually relieved to be back in the theater after concentrating the last few years on two yet-to-be-made screenplays, one for Martin Scorsese, the other for his great friend and collaborator Louis Malle, who passed away before the film could be made. ”It’s all too depressing working in movies, never knowing whether they’re going to get done or not. I like making plays, where the object is for them to have an immediate life.”
”The Signature has given me the opportunity to take a few old plays of mine and put them into the present,” he says, growing increasingly restless in his seat. ”It’s not about looking back–it’s about right now. Someone told me after seeing Marco Polo that it was like having the ’70s come up and shake hands with the ’90s. I can’t tell you how moving it was to see that play was still alive.”