You remember the anecdote about Sir Thomas Beecham rehearsing Handel’s Messiah. The women’s chorus had just started on “For unto us a child is born,” when the famously sharp-tongued conductor rapped his baton and said, “A little more enthusiasm, please, ladies—and not quite so much astonishment.” I often think how right he was as I witness the birth of a new play. Astonishment, which is what Diaghilev demanded from Cocteau, may be necessary to juice up a jaded Parisian palate, but America is still fairly young in art: When our cultural offspring turn out to be living and delightful, we should welcome the event as natural to us, and not stand awestruck by it. The challenge for the theater, as for the ladies of Beecham’s chorale, is to greet the everyday miracle of a new life freshly, without having to be shocked into appreciation: just a little more enthusiasm, please, and not quite so much astonishment.
John Guare’s A Few Stout Individuals is precisely the kind of good new play that you might call an everyday miracle. It doesn’t break any new ground, but every minute of it is fresh and newly alive; it doesn’t extend the boundaries of the theater, but it makes the theater an exciting and vivid place to be, a place of delight. If you know Guare’s preoccupations, or the literature and history of the play’s era, you will find many familiar landmarks. But in the theater, space and time are easily remapped, and part of the delight here is to see the familiar landmarks crop up in unexpected places. After a disheartening year of non-plays, half-plays, and why’d-they-bother plays, with only a few gratifying exceptions, a B-12 infusion like this is indeed something to be pleased about—all the more given the haphazardness of Guare’s own most recent efforts: The debt he incurred by making audiences sit through Lake Hollywood and Chaucer in Rome is hereby paid in full.
Ulysses S. Grant, Guare’s hero, is likewise a man who honors his debts—an astonishing figure to put center stage in the era of Enron. The year is 1885. Bilked of his fortune by a shady speculator who has since gone to Sing Sing, the retired general and ex-president, dying of throat cancer and nearly immobilized by a hip injury, sits in a Fifth Avenue brownstone that’s been stripped bare in his effort to pay back the investors he’s bankrupted. Though empty of furnishings, his room is still jammed with needy family members, gate-crashers who want to trade on his celebrity, and an assortment of eminences, real or recollected, that includes the Emperor and Empress of Japan, the opera superstar Adelina Patti, and Samuel Clemens, more familiar under his nom de plume of Mark Twain. The last, also temporarily near the end of his financial rope, is in the process of coaxing out of Grant the two volumes of memoirs that Clemens has contracted to publish, and that will ultimately make both men enormously rich (though Clemens, inevitably, will lose his share to another lousy investment).
Getting the two volumes out of Grant, though, is no easy task. In addition to the unending madcap trek of visitors, old “Unconditional Surrender” is kept on a steady regime of low-level opiates by his doting wife Julia, who thinks she can alleviate the nation’s pain as well as her spouse’s by omitting all unpleasantness from this memoir of one of the bloodiest wars ever fought. Badeau, the pompous secretary Clemens has installed in the house, despises both Mrs. Grant’s female fussiness and Twain’s salty style; he wants the General’s book to ring with an empty dignity that might please Matthew Arnold. One way or another, everyone else is plotting to trade on the General’s name and place in history; even the sculptor hovering at the door has plans for marketing copies of his death mask.
Apart from Mrs. Grant—and the Japanese royalty, who exist only in Grant’s drug-triggered memories of his trip to Tokyo—the lone person onstage who’s not interested in exploiting Grant’s celebrity is his manservant, Harrison, a Union veteran of color who has his own nightmarish recollections of the war, and wants Grant’s truth to be the whole truth about it. The play’s farcical goings-on may be purest New York—it often seems like a tragic analogue to Room Service or You Can’t Take It With You—but its thematic poles are Tokyo, where the Grants were saluted as superheroes on their post-presidential visit, and Cold Harbor, where the General broke the back of the Confederate advance by the simple, and hideous, device of sacrificing more troops than either side could spare. Guare’s description of this insensate battle, given to Harrison, is the most chillingly great speech to be heard on the American stage right now, and Charles Brown’s speaking of it, without a single missed detail or an ounce of overplaying, is a model of eloquence that would make Demosthenes spit pebbles in envy.
But then, Michael Greif’s smartly detailed and fast-flowing production is a banquet of acting, in which Brown’s lustrous gravity of speech is only a side dish. The centerpiece is the solemn, perplexed mask of Donald Moffat’s Grant, sullen with guilt or raging in silent indignation. The sparkling wine is Polly Holliday’s Mrs. Grant, with a bitter tang under every sweet coruscation. The sauce, zesty with homegrown spices, is William Sadler’s warm, rueful Sam Clemens. The extravagantly flavored stuffing is Tom McGowan’s manic, high-pitched Badeau. Dashing James Yaegashi and delicate Michi Baral, as the imperial couple, keep reappearing, Oriental condiments in the midst of this American plenitude. And dessert—you could hardly call it anything else—is Cheryl Evans’s droll blend of high notes and low mockery as Adelina Patti.
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.
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.