New Work from John Guare
The Sacredness of the Next Task
By John Guare
Since this is drama?which is always about things going wrong, otherwise no one would bother with it?the very mention of utopia sets one looking right away for the seeds of failure, and sure enough, these are displayed before the first play is half an hour old. The commune is short of money, and the members must occasionally leave to earn cash from "the enemy." The pretentiously intellectual Joshua Hickman (Bill Camp) has had his magnum opus, Prolegomena to Duty, ignominiously rejected by William Dean Howells of The Atlantic Monthly. Joshua's marriage to Lydie, ostensibly a technical trifle meant to lend the group the requisite respectability for residence on the island, has become real in his mind, introducing jealousy and dishonesty into the paradise. Amos Mason (Boris McGiver), lonely, disillusioned, half-literate and a butt of ridicule, wants to leave to get an education, and Dan Grady (Matt Servitto), bullishly cheerful and sexually reckless, arrives with a bag of ill-gotten cash that he's convinced will solve everything.
Apart from the fascination and appeal of these wonderfully colorful people, the most beautiful aspect of this story is the way Guare conceived it on both a large and a small canvas. Countless other contemporary playwrights have tried to use 19th-century settings to clear away the overfamiliar impedimenta of modernity to make room for more basic questions, and ended up merely with dry, pedantic history. Guare's landscape, by contrast, feels truly cleared and essentialized, the keys to this being his humor (which somehow manages to be both deflating and ennobling) and his oddly gentle touch with heavy references. He puts his finger on quintessentially American corruptions without sacrificing any of the prurient allure of personal detail. (See Lydie's gorgeous description of her miscarriage, for instance, in a short scene that also touches on the neglect of children, the exorbitant cost of higher education and the exploitation of local mill workers.) He also captures the full breath of grandiosity and monumental optimism of the age (wrapping the action in imposing quotations from Bulfinch and Whitman, for instance), without falling into cheaply romantic nostalgia.
The biggest weakness of Bulfinch's Mythology is in the premise of its second act, which takes place nine years later in a Boston prison where Joshua is confined for murdering Dan. It's just not plausible that a man with Joshua's intelligence didn't already know when he went off "to find [his] gods" in Europe that Dan was going to steal his girl. Despite that, though, the act is marvelously acted and contains some lovely writing that deepens the questions subtly raised earlier about ideal ambition and its costs to those close to the dreamer. Amos, now a top-hatted lawyer who has overcome his speech impediment and gained political ambition, has great poise and heft as acted by McGiver, and Marvel's entrance as the wasted Lydie is itself sufficient reason to see the show.
Starving, sick with fever, dressed in borrowed clothes that completely cover the body she was so eager to uncorset back on Nantucket, her voice shockingly hoarse, she is a macabre, horrible presence who knocks the play instantly off the cerebral perch it has occasionally rested on with its protuberant references to Robinson Crusoe and The Count of Monte Cristo and exploited mill workers (a novelty in this revision). What humans conceive, she seems to say with her presence, must be built, lived in and lived out by humans in all their imperfection. Philosophical Joshua, in the end, appears as a sort of American Gregers Werle (Ibsen's destructive idealist in The Wild Duck), a man who possesses a heart of sorts but who lacks the foresight and empathy to understand his effect on the world beyond the plane of his bold ideas (a trope for his ambition). "In all our dreaming," he says, "we never allowed for the squalid, petty furies. We lived on a beach in a vast landscape. We mistook the size of the ocean, the size of the sky for the size of our souls." Unfortunately, The Sacredness of the Next Task has little to compare with all this. Its solemn title notwithstanding, this play is jarringly flippant, feeding the themes and problems of the elegantly structured Bulfinch's Mythology into a sort of soap operatic gift-wrap-machine. On one account, I do feel grateful for this glib and transparent second play, because it was the original source of a crucial character?Beaty, a young Irish girl who joins the commune as a domestic worker?whom Guare introduced into the first play in this revision. The role of Beaty in Bulfinch offers terrific opportunities for the marvelous actress Joanna Adler, coming off as lucid, richly strange and flush with understated vitality. The same role, with the same actress, comes off as stagy, strained and grandiloquent in Sacredness, a sadly explicit testimony to the diminishing effect of the play.
Set in 1895 and focusing on the fates of Beaty, the older Joshua, Lydie's two grown daughters and Dan's grown son, this play is a veritable catalog of sensational revelations about such matters as suicide, syphilis, rape and child molestation. It is chock-full of classical allusions?mostly to Hamlet and Ghosts?that are as clumsy and contrived as the earlier ones were apt and penetrating, and its plot is so convoluted that the emotional impact of entire scenes is lost. (If anyone can explain to me exactly what Beaty thinks happened to her years ago on the beach, for instance, I'm on pins and needles.) Guare leaves the impression that he simply tired of following the internal demands of his story and characters after completing the first play and resorted to schemas drawn from his prodigious reading to craft the second.
The director Kubovy, too, shows a much surer hand on Bulfinch than on Sacredness. Working with a handsome and cleverly versatile set by Neil Patel?a flat wood-slat floor that rolls up into a sand dune on one side, with a stucco wall and stairs to a second-level walkway at back?Kubovy proves extremely resourceful at maintaining a crucial sense of communal fun early on (Dan slapping a fish, for instance, or Lydie spitting wine at Amos or Amos hopping clownishly down the steps). As the productions go on, however, the sense of ensemble (fun or otherwise) grows more and more uncertain, and the physical business in Sacredness is frequently trite and obvious (the dead Lydie's teenage daughter Lydie, for instance, clings to the rope mom used to hang herself like an obscene totem). There are certainly many light comic pleasures in Sacredness (among them Alexandra Oliver's gritty performance as the older, streetwise daughter Gussie). In general, though, even the successful comedy reads as a misguided effort to magnify what was already more than sufficiently enlarged.
New York Theater Workshop, 79 E. 4th St. (betw. Bowery & 2nd Ave.), 460-5475, through July 2.
MUST READ NEWS
Sign up to get our newsletter emailed to you every week!
- Enter your email address in the box below.
- Select the newsletters you would like to subscribe to.
- Click the 'SUBSCRIBE' button.