[On 27 June, I published my report on John Guare’s latest work, 3 Kinds of Exile. In it, I noted that the playwright had written original songs for one of the pieces in the trilogy, “Funiage,” mentioning that Guare had earlier written songs for Landscape of the Body in 1977. I saw a Signature Theatre Company revival of Landscape (16 April-28 May 2006 at the Peter Norton Space), so I thought I’d make a spot to publish this pre-ROT report on the blog, just for the curiosity value—and for the sake of completeness. As you’ll read, this was one of the rare occasions when I wasn’t pleased with STC’s script selection. ~Rick]
I saw the revival of John Guare’s 1977 Landscape of the Body at the Signature Rep here on 18 April  and it was, to put it simplistically, a disappointment. Ben Brantley gave it a rave in the Times a day or so before I saw the performance, especially singling out the two female leads. (The review appears on line at http://theater.nytimes.com/2006/04/17/theater/reviews/17body.html.) I went into the show expecting to like it, even wanting to, if you know what I mean. I’ve had serious problems with Brantley’s criticism since he became the Times’ main theater reviewer, and I have mostly come to discount his judgment and just read him for description and whatever objective information he provides. We have differed so often, in both directions, that I have concluded he and I don’t see the same shows. (I may have once explained that I think Brantley, who doesn’t associate with anyone in the New York theater scene, experiences things, including plays, in his own imagination, not in the same reality in which the rest of us experience things.) Nevertheless, because Landscape wasn’t a new play but a “known quantity,” if you will, and because I generally like Guare, I was prepared to like the play despite the dichotomy of my responses with Brantley’s. Even a stopped clock, as a friend used to like to say, is right twice a day. I shoulda gone with my instincts.
I wanted to like Landscape so much, it took several scenes before I realized that it’s a confused, and possibly self-indulgent, mess. I tried at first to see if the production was to blame, but it wasn’t. Brantley had praised the stagework heavily, comparing it favorably to the previous Signature show, the wonderful revival of Horton Foote’s Trip to Bountiful. [I posted my old report on this terrific production on ROT on 25 May.] He asserted that that was the definitive revival of the Foote play—an opinion I actually won’t argue with (except to caution that “definitive” in live theater is a dubious claim, no matter how good something is)—and that this staging of Landscape would do for Guare’s 1977 play what the earlier one did for Foote’s 1957 masterpiece. Uh-uh—no way. It’s not that the acting or directing was lacking, but that the play just isn’t for Guare what Bountiful is for Foote. The Foote’s a wonderful evocation of a world which the playwright created and populated, then revisited—with us along for the rides—on many subsequent occasions. His characters are lovingly-created human beings with personalities, foibles, quirks, failings, and strengths. They ebb and flow, just like those in real people (except to more dramatic consequence, of course). The plays seem slight—because the slice of the Foote world he lets us see each time is small, but not inconsequential—but they’re not. None of this was in evidence in Landscape.
Allowing that Guare doesn’t deal in the realities that Foote does, it’s not entirely fair to compare the two in all aspects, but when Guare goes off into his Dadaistic world, like in House of Blue Leaves or the one-act Day for Surprises, you go along with him, accepting the absurdities and nonsequiturs as parts of that world. Landscape is just incredible—in the sense of ‘not credible.’ The coincidences are too silly to be world-shaking, the characters are all too eccentric to be anything but that—eccentric (as opposed to somehow following the dictates of a parallel reality). There are too many of them thrown into the situation, as if Guare had all these queer folk left over from past scripts and decided to use them all up in one fell swoop. And too many of the main quirks assigned to each character seemed irrelevant, as if they were just selected to make us ask, ‘What’s going on here?’ but without ever answering the question. The (male) travel agent boss, Raulito (Bernard White), wears a gold lamé evening gown . . . because when he was growing up in Cuba, he thought that’s how all rich Americans dressed (ooookaaaay). But what’s the dramatic point of that? So he can get shot in an apparent bank robbery wearing the dress? Why? The nutsy southern (and why does he have to be southern—because they’re all nutsy somehow?) suitor, Durwood Peach (Jonathan Fried), is allowed to leave the protection of his clinic and grand estate back home to come up to woo Betty, with the blessing of both his mother and . . . his wife. Why? Because the only way to get Betty out of his system is to let him make the trip—alone, with thousands of bucks in cash. And of course, Betty (Lili Taylor) goes back south with him. Why? Just so she can leave her 14-year-old son, Bert (Stephen Scott Scarpulla—and what’s with all these three-part names nowadays, anyway?), home alone so the plot can happen the way Guare wants it to. That’s basically all it amounts to—a way to get the plot on track. All the craziness of the suitor doesn’t accomplish much else, except provide some hoops for the actor to jump through (rather well, I must say, in this case).
The big theatrical coup of Landscape is that the characters sing. It’s not a musical in the conventional sense, but the main characters all come down front several times and sing. Rosalie (Sherie Rene Scott), the dead sister (yeah, that’s right) was a nightclub chanteuse wannabe, so she hovers around in a white satin gown, à la Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blonds, and sings her torch songs; Betty contributes several ballads; and Bert does a big rock number that Brantley thought was the bomb. (Poor Scarpulla, his raspy voice, obviously still in the throes of the change, was almost too painful to listen to. I wanted to reach for a cough drop just out of sympathy.) Guare wrote the lyrics and music, and I guess that’s an accomplishment in itself, but I never felt the singing really did anything for the play either theatrically or dramatically. It was a gimmick, as far as I was concerned. (Everybody’s gotta have one, you know.) Reminded me of the bit about the dog who reads the newspaper: It’s not a matter of how well he does it, but the fact that he does it at all. So, it didn’t matter how effective the songs are, but that Guare wrote them and inserted them into his play. Harrumph!
I never really figured out what Guare was on about in Landscape. I was a little embarrassed when a small group of spectators seated next to my friend Diana and me—Diana having gone off to the convenience—turned to me after discussing their confusion among themselves and asked what I thought the play was about. I couldn’t answer. (I actually thought briefly of lying and making up an answer. I had been a grad student in theater, for Pete’s sake—I could certainly come up with some bullshit or other. I decided on a sheepish grimace of shared confusion and left it at that. Brave soul that I am.) Brantley says things like “‘Landscape’ identifies the human condition as an almost unbearable wistfulness,” that it “locat[es] the loneliness in the celebrity-besotted American culture of the late 20th century” and “identifies the unbearable wistfulness of being.” What does any of that MEAN?
As directed by Michael Greif, according to Brantley, Guare is illustrating the “obsession with fabulous fame and conspicuous wealth, qualities perceived as infinitely desirable and equally unobtainable” in America, “a lyrical and sordid world where tabloid prurience has become a religion.” Okay, maybe he is—but that seems a slight and well-worn point that can’t really bear up under the weight of so much contrivance, I don’t think. I didn’t see the play in ’77, but I remember when it played at Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival and I remember feeling that it wasn’t anything I wanted to see. I probably should have remembered that feeling.