Click HERE to read my pre-opening interview with director Bruce MacDonald

Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2007

I have been a big fan of the American playwright John Guare (1938- ) since I was a teenager. Like Shakespeare, Stoppard and Chekhov, he uses language in fascinating and intricate ways, which I enjoy. But like the other three writers I have named, his work is not easy and it is not for everyone. It is raw and loopy and complex and non-linear.

Bosoms and Neglect received its first New York production in 1979, where it closed with a whimper after seven previews and four performances. Guare has since revised and updated the script (Scooper now has a cell phone) but it remains a lesser work in his canon, and a difficult one to stage because the first and second acts are so dramatically different in look and feel. Act I centers on Scooper’s (Scott Moran) encounter with Diedre (Kelli Newby), a fellow psychiatric patient of the unseen Dr. James in her apartment. Scooper’s mother, Henny (Beth Hahn), makes only a brief appearance and then she is seen through Scooper’s eyes. Act II takes place in Henny’s hospital room and centers on the mother-son relationship, which is slightly more realistic (as realistic as things get in Guare) and focused.

Bruce T. MacDonald, the director of this production at Main Street Stage and the Artistic Director of that venue, is to be applauded for consistently choosing difficult, even dangerous work. It is wonderful that local actors and audiences alike have an opportunity to experience theatre that is decidedly uncommercial and off the beaten path. While this is not a perfect production, the three-member cast gives it their all and often manages to present Guare’s horrible/hilarious viewpoint with dignity.

If you go to see Bosoms and Neglect, take Bette Davis’ advice and “Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night!” In fact one of the most turbulent parts of the evening occurs at the outset when we hear and see Scooper’s version of the discovery that the blind, 83-year-old Henny has a prolapsed uterus and malignant breast cancer. That is a pretty rough scene, and unfortunately Moran plays it at full volume, which is too loud for the tiny confines of that theatre.

The scenes that follow with Diedre are largely surreal. Diedre is a dealer in rare books and first editions, at least she claims to be and her apartment is filled with piles and piles of books. Here Guare focuses heavily on the nature of language, spoken and written, to create and destroy, to stabilize and to undermine reality and human relationships.

Newby has the hardest job here. The one thing we can be sure that Diedre is is crazy. The girl is stark-raving mad and it is probable that nothing she says is the truth, which gives an actress precious little on which to base a performance. Newby does her level best, and is at her most effective as Diedre’s layers of lies slip away one by one and the full extent of her insanity is revealed.

Scooper and Henny have a much more straightforward (as straightforward as things get in Guare) mother-son relationship, fraught with the large and ludicrous problems Guare favors. Much is revealed in Henny’s final monologue which, ironically, Scooper doesn’t hear.

Moran has not been acting for a while, and he is brave to re-start his stage career with this very challenging part. Scooper is almost as crazy and Diedre, but at least he can admit most of his problems where she remains in deep denial. Moran seems to pick up more on Guare’s very dark humor than Newby and Hahn.

Hahn is young to play an 83-year-old, although the doctors who perform her mastectomy do say that she has the body of a 52-year-old woman, which allows for some leeway in casting. It took me a while in the first act to catch on to Henny’s blindness. The Henny of Act I, the Henny of Scooper’s distressed memory, is literally and figuratively an hysterical woman*. The Henny of Act II is a far more rounded, real, and centered person. In Act I Hahn has to dash about madly. In Act II she is confined to a hospital bed. She is better at lying down than running about.

In terms of the plot, the title really tells you exactly what the play is about. It is about bosoms and neglect – bosoms, which are soft and warm and nurturing and pleasurable, and neglect, which is cold and empty and wasting and miserable. The two themes crisscross throughout the play, with neglect winning and bosoms losing in the end.

This show is another in our unofficial Berkshire Summer of Insanity. If you see this production in addition to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at the Berkshire Theatre Festival and Blue/Orange at Shakespeare & Company you will get a third perspective on the Wild and Wacky World of Mental Health. Scooper sees his beloved Dr. James three times a week (at $150 a session) and Diedre sees him fives times (at a bargain $140 per session) and a large part of their joint melt-down is that it is August and Dr. James has gone on vacation (most likely to Haiti with Scooper’s mistress). Guare has a lot of fun at the expensive of the swanky high-end of the American mental health system, in marked contrast to the state operated systems portrayed in ...Cuckoo’s Nest, set in 1960 in a mental hospital in the Pacific Northwest, and Blue Orange, set in a present-day London psychiatric facility. By the end of the play, when you understand just how deeply disturbed Scooper and Diedre are you wonder if the wrong end of the socio-economic scale isn’t being institutionalized!

There is no credit for set design, and yet someone put thought and effort into coming up with the distinct looks for the two acts. I liked the hallucinogenic projections in Act I during Scooper’s agitated recall of the discovery of Henny’s neglect of her body. Both Berkshire Medical Center and North Adams Regional Hospital are given special thanks in the program, which explains the authentic hospital bed, wheelchair, and oh-so-glamorous hospital johnnies sported by Scooper and Henny in Act II.

Watching an amateur cast tackle lesser Guare could be a painful experience. I like Guare and was relieved that MacDonald and his company succeeded in presenting a cringe-free performance. But if you don’t cotton up to Guare’s writing it this show probably will be a painful two-and-a-half-hours for you. The important thing to keep in mind is that this is intended to be a comedy, a very dark one, but a comedy nonetheless. I think I horrified some of my fellow audience members by laughing at a couple of lines, but I encourage you to go expecting outrageous, wacky, over-the-top dark humor. It will help you understand where Guare and this production are coming from.

Bosoms and Neglect previews Thursday, July 19th and opens Friday, July 20th. It continues Fridays and Saturdays through August 4th at 8 P.M. There will be two Sunday matinees, July, 22nd and July 29th at 4 P.M. and two special Community Night performance at 8 P.M. on Thursday, July 26th and August 2nd. Tickets are $20 general admission, $15 for seniors and $10 for students . The Community Night performances are "Pay What You Can".

The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission and is definitely not for children. I would give it an R-rating. Not that there is an inordinate amount of sex, violence, and rough language, but there is a healthy dose of all three and Henny's medical problems are quite graphically described. For reservations or more information call Main Street Stage at 413-663-3240 or visit their Web site. The theatre is located at 57 Main Street in North Adams, MA. Seating is very limited and reservations are recommended.

* [Origin: 1650–60; < L hystericus < Gk hysterikós, suffering in the womb, hysterical, reflecting the Greeks' belief that hysteria was peculiar to women and caused by disturbances in the uterus.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007

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