Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2003
When I opened the WTF’s 2003 season brochure for the first time I was astounded to see that four of the five MainStage shows were ones that I liked and would consider paying their very steep ticket prices to see. But something in the back of my mind told me that there was a reason people didn’t ask Gail M. Burns to pick the shows for the WTF on a regular basis, and that that reason had something to do with the fact that I like very peculiar shows. It was very thoughtful of whoever selected this year’s WTF season to cater so exactly to my tastes, but is it a good marketing ploy?
After watching the preview performance of John Guare’s Landscape of the Body last night, and after hearing some feed-back on the regurgitated 1992 Peter Hunt production of The Threepenny Opera which closed on Sunday, I would say that so far not-so-good. And this comes from a woman who LOVES The Threepenny Opera and would walk miles barefoot on hot sand to see a John Guare play. In fact, I elected not to see Threepenny because I realized early on that it was a “re-run” of the decidedly mediocre production I had seen at the WTF eleven years ago. And I adored Landscape of the Body but even in my wild worship of the playwright I have to say that this is not Guare’s best work.
What is Landscape of the Body about? Some theatres bill it as a mystery, although I didn’t find myself caring much whodunit. There is a murder, but since it is evident from early on that the victim was knowingly engaging in risky behavior and hanging around with the wrong crowd, it is not very important to learn exactly which one of his low-life “friends” did him in (it’s the obvious one) and why (for money).
Guare has written that the central portion of this play should be performed as if it were a dream. He recommends a dark set that can be brilliantly lit for the first and last scenes. Set designer Allen Moyer and lighting designer Kenneth Posner follow his instructions to the T, but in new and creative ways. Where Guare suggests black boxes and a lone piano player, Moyer has built a great, two-story rolling scaffold with a four piece band on the top level and plenty of dark hidey-holes underneath. The only part of the set I just didn’t get was the enormous lighted sign proclaiming “1977” that greets you as you enter the AMT. So what if it is 1977? Or 1981? Or 2003? Unlike other Guare works, notably his famous House of Blue Leaves and its sequel Chaucer In Rome which are set in very specific times, Landscape of the Body is more specific to place than time.
The place is mostly Greenwich Village in New York City, although other landscapes are briefly represented or evoked – the airport in Bangor, Maine; the ferry to Nantucket; a lush farm in South Carolina. I don’t quite understand why Guare called this play Landscape of the Body (although there is a fabulous monologue on that subject late in the first half) when Landscape of the Mind would have been more appropriate. This play is very much about where people are and where they have been and where they are going, but not so much the actuality of those physical locations as what they seem to represent. Bangor represents cold isolation. Greenwich Village represents danger and excitement. Nantucket represents the most distant point the central character can reach with the money available to her. And South Carolina represents a fresh start someplace warm and inviting.
I haven’t mentioned a character by name yet. The play is also about people. About Betty Yearn (nee Mandible) (Lili Taylor), her 14-year-old son Bert (Joseph Cross), and her sister Rosalie (Sherie Rene Scott). About a vaguely remembered man from Betty’s past named Durwood Peach (Jonathan Fried) and her Chicano employer Raulito (Jose Zuniga) who wears a gold lame evening gown over his business suit and exudes machismo. About Bert’s so-called friends Donny (Gabriel Millman), Joanne (Hayden Panettiere), and Margie (Kate Mara). And supposedly about Captain Marvin Holahan, Sixth Precinct, Homicide, (Michael Gaston), although I didn’t find him to be a very interesting or plausible “leading man.”
At the opening of the play many of these characters are dead, but they speak to us in flashbacks. Betty is charged with her son’s murder. Rosalie, dead and alive, narrates the show and sings Guare’s wonderful songs. I love that Guare writes music for his plays, or plays for his music. I love that in his world people just sing. They sing beautiful, silly, poignant songs that need singing from their souls. Scott’s Rosalie does almost all the singing and she does it wonderfully well. Scott has appeared on Broadway in “Aida,” “Rent,” and “The Who’s ‘Tommy’” and it is a treat to here her belt out Guare’s quirly tunes.
Taylor really anchors the show with a fully defined portrayal of Betty. She is so good and so believable as an average woman that the beauty of her performance comes over you slowly. Zuniga does look macho in a dress. And Fried is heartbreaking as the gently deranged Durwood Peach (such an excellent name for a southern gentleman).
But Joseph Cross drove me nuts. He hasn’t seen 14 in at least a decade, and when he barged in between Taylor and Scott to take center stage at the curtain call I wanted to slap him silly. Couldn’t the WTF have found a short 18-19 year old actor who could at least have passed for 15 or 16? Cross is too old and too tall. The character of Bert needs the vulnerability and the naivety that belong to a half-grown child of 14, not the strength and assurance of a young man.
Why did I not cotton up to Gaston or his character? His performance was perfectly adequate. I think the problem lay in the script. Guare may imagine Holahan to be the male lead, and perhaps in an earlier draft of the play he had more stage time, but the closing moment when he and Betty are apparently paired off comes out of nowhere and rings false.
But I still wonder who picked this show and put it on the MainStage. Guare is an intimate playwright, and the batty broads like me who adore his work are not legion. Why not stage this on the Nikos Stage, as Chaucer In Rome was a few years back? I don’t think there are enough Gail Burns clones to sell this show on the MainStage, nor do I think Guare speaks to a main stream/main stage audience. I had fun, but I think most of the people in the audience were simply confused.
Landscape of the Body runs through July 20 on the Main Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival . The show runs two hours and ten minutes with one intermission. Suitable for ages 13 and up. Call the box office at 413-597-3400 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2003