All great plays, they say, are about love— the countless ways people care for each other, and the equally countless terrible things they do to, by, for, with, or at each other because they care. Since John Guare writes about people who care— who do so, in fact, with a feverish maximum of intensity— Bosoms and Neglect is a great play of its kind.
This wasn’t always apparent. Guare is a funny writer in both the peculiar and ha-ha senses of the word. He cares digressively, looping his words from one distracting detail to the next till all the digressions have somehow been linked back to the story’s passionate core— a ticklish process, along the path of which very few directors and actors have been able to follow him. Bosoms, where the heart lies, and neglect, the common coin of human emotional life, may be the play’s true subjects, but the young couple who seem at first to be its main characters talk mainly about books and shrinks. The inevitable temptation is to treat them as figures in a New Yorker cartoon. But while Guare often trades in the cartoonish, his foolery is always grounded in considerable pain; the right cartoon analogy for his people would be something like Steig’s psychoanalytic horrors.
Guare’s hero, who goes by the baby nickname of Scooper, describes one of these nightmares in cartoon terms to Deirdre, a young woman he has picked up: It is the neglected bosom of his blind, elderly mother, Henny, who has been attempting to cure what she refuses to believe is advanced breast cancer by applying sanitary napkins and a statue of St. Jude to the suppurating wound. Scooper compares the sight to a peach with a bite out of it, left for months at the back of a disconnected refrigerator. Luckily, his all-powerful shrink, Dr. James, has been able to get Henny scheduled for an emergency mastectomy— at the same time as Scooper’s last hour on the couch for a month. It’s August, when all Manhattan shrinks go on vacation simultaneously “so we won’t run off to other doctors while they’re away.” Frantic Scooper has latched onto the equally bookish Deirdre, who has the appointment before his and is even more dependent on Dr. James— so much so that she runs her rare-book business from the building across the street.
Driven by the confusions his mother induces, Scooper has made his life so convoluted it’s on the verge of imploding. Deirdre, who buries her true history under a blizzard of fantasies, has an equally damaging relationship with her father. While the two lost offspring connect, clash, explode in violence, and reconnect, Guare teases us with alternate explanations. Maybe the parents messed up the kids, maybe the kids did it to themselves; maybe, even, the kids did it to the parents. The stream of references to books is like a continuous prayer offered up to the gods of Art, that magical other world where everything is made orderly and compassable within a given number of pages between covers. Lonely, drifting souls like Deirdre and Scooper find kindred spirits in the novels and writers everyone else neglects— Conrad’s Chance, Graham Greene’s The Comedians.
Scooper and Deirdre’s conflict puts them both in the same hospital as Henny, who survives her mastectomy as she has survived blindness and madness. Driven to deeper frenzy by her persistent refusal to blame herself for his misery, Scooper tries to force her to commit suicide, as if that would get her out of his psyche. But here, too, destiny comically fails him. Henny wants to live so she can see, as it were, how he turns out. “You’re my book,” she tells Scooper, whose unending sense of neglect and betrayal (“neglect is always betrayal,” Deirdre says primly) turns out to come from one foolish act Henny committed in his childhood, stemming from her own similar feelings. By the time she admits this, though, Scooper is off pursuing another fatalistic round with Deirdre. The play’s final image is Guare’s picture of Truth— a painful, humiliating absurdity, confessed by a blind woman to a room she doesn’t realize is empty. No, it’s not the sort of lighthearted cartoon that has a long Broadway run.
But it is, in hands that can make its tangled ironies jump to life, a small masterpiece of modern tragicomedy. Nothing on Guare’s shelf has the perfect balance and glowing intensity of this tiny chamber trio. In this third New York attempt, thanks to director Nicholas Martin, who shares Guare’s syncopated,
urban-American tonal sense, everything works: James Noone’s set, with its blood-red proscenium frame and the weirdly curving scrollwork on Deirdre’s bookshelves; Gail Brassard’s hints-of-trouble costumes; the sullen August sunshine of Frances Aronson’s lights. Even the prop books look right.
Most of all, of course, the acting works. As Henny, Mary Louise Wilson cheerily tosses away the elegance and crisp precision of attack that have been her essence; just try finding Diana Vreeland’s sharp profile in this gelatinous face, its two huge blank eyes brimming with need, its persistent voice piping up and down the color organ. David Aaron Baker, similarly, has been rescued from his good looks. Most directors treat him as a hunky meat object; here he comes on in specs, with overbite and receding hairline, a jittery rhythm and a one-forward-two-back gait, and great comic acting, say middle-period Preston Sturges, isn’t far off. Katie Finneran, as Deirdre, can’t soar over the high hurdles of Guare-speak with the ease of these two, but she holds her own, with a droll mix of regal bearing and abrupt starts that betray the woman whose life is, literally, fiction. As Guare shows, that’s what all our lives are anyway, modeled on our ideas of ourselves and our impressions of others. Reality, the great intangible, is what we most neglect.
ARTHUR SCHNITZLER, a doctor-playwright of Chekhovian stature, knew enough not to neglect it. His Reigen, better known by its French title, La Ronde, is a somberly funny study of 10 human specimens pre- and postcoitus. Sometimes love’s involved, at others only money or power. The subtext is the transmission of syphilis from one corpus to the next; the even sadder surface is the transmission of lies, matched to the speaker’s social class and position in the encounter.
Banned in its own time, La Ronde is unplayable now except as reconstructed social history. The mores of a time that refused to mention sex publicly are gibberish to an era that screams it from every billboard. The only solution would be a brand-new play, on Schnitzler’s grid, featuring new characters and new lies. David Hare’s The Blue Room, unfortunately, is barely half such a play. Grabbing lazily for analogies, he takes far too many from Max Ophuls’s brilliant but misguided 1950 film. (Schnitzler’s Junge Herr wasn’t a student till Ophuls bespectacled him.) Worse, Hare leaves in chunks of verbatim Schnitzler that sound absurd in the mouths of people who live by cell phones and hard-sell cynicism, or unwisely carries over Schnitzler’s data without its irony. Hare’s Actress says of her gay leading man, “He’s living with a postman.” But Schnitzler’s Actress says her costar “has an arrangement [Verhältnis] with the man who delivers his mail”— characterization, joke, realistic detail, and social mores, and all in seven words in the German.
Still, Hare’s half-done text has a punchy playability that Sam Mendes’s dryly austere production exploits to the full. Apart from one smarmy running joke— the time of each sex act is projected on the back wall— everything onstage looks beautiful, albeit cold and distant. Iain Glen, playing all the male roles, warms it up from time to time, with both body and voice. Nicole Kidman equals him in the former, catching the physical language of each character; vocally, though, she has the usual film-star limitation, a breathy, centerless tone with few colors. Consumer warning: Her heralded bare-bosom moment takes place far upstage, in dim candlelight. But bare flesh doesn’t help, since it only makes you wonder how all these characters could share the same body type. Schnitzler’s intentions were actively unerotic; Hare’s, barely half fulfilled, can hardly be read through the elegant gloom.