At 75, many a man might reasonably think of retirement. Instead, John Guare has embarked on a fresh career. In 3 Kinds of Exile, the portmanteau play at Atlantic Theater, directed by Neil Pepe, Guare not only supplies the script, he also appears in the middle section, “Elzbieta Erased,” marking his acting debut.
These short plays have little in common structurally or stylistically. Theme (the emigration of three Eastern European artists) provides the link. All three pieces, even “Funiage,” the last and least successful, display Guare’s trademark technique: lush language and harsh ironies interwoven with thick cords of humanity. Every laugh has its concomitant ache, every smile its portion of pain.
In the first play, “Karel,” a man (Martin Moran), referred to in the program only as “Actor,” but likely a stand-in for the Czech-born filmmaker Karel Reisz, tells the story of a young Jewish boy’s evacuation to England on the eve of WWII and the feelings of shame that haunt him as a grown man.
Moran’s own solo shows have plumbed similar emotional depths (guilt, embarrassment, moral perplexity), so he brings poignancy and precision to this monologue. The writing—the best of the evening—emphasizes Guare’s cunning intelligence and rich descriptive powers, as in the depiction of a psychosomatic rash: “He felt like an Easter egg someone had dipped into fuchsia. He felt like a tropical flower out of Gauguin. He felt his body was the red of anger.”
In the second piece, “Elzbieta Erased,” less anguished and more arch, Guare and the actor-translator Omar Sangare offer a slideshow tribute to the Polish actress Elzbieta Czyzewska, who came to New York as a Cold War bride, promptly losing her career, her fame, and her looks. Though charismatic, Guare isn’t a natural actor. His clipped, patrician diction makes certain words sound as though uttered through mouthfuls of clam chowder. But the affection that he and Sangare feel for Czyzewska renders the duologue surprisingly moving.
Only “Funiage,” a celebration of the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, who lived out his middle years as an Argentine bank clerk, seems a misjudgment. Though anchored by the sad-clown gravitas of David Pittu, the antics of this neo-vaudeville feel far more labored than playful and Pepe’s directorial hand too evident and self-conscious. There is much dashing about, to little effect. And even though the piece draws from Gombrowicz’s own prose, that teasing, discomfiting style never fully emerges.
Much of Guare’s earlier writing—The House of Blue Leaves, Landscape of the Body—concerns those who invent or reinvent themselves, rarely with much success. These plays take on the same tropes as the three real-life figures try to adapt to their new countries, never fully assimilating. The pieces remind us that we all experience life as emigrants, thrust from a familiar past into a foreign present and future, working to reconcile our former sense of self with fresh circumstance. The Actor inquires what any of us might ask ourselves, “How much of your life have you made up? How much of your life are you a stranger to?” Guare’s sweet bitter answer: most of it.