Celebrating Playwright John Guare

It was as if John Guare had come to his own memorial service, he joked at the end of last night’s two-hour celebration of his work at the 92nd Street Y. “But I’m so happy to be alive.” On the day after the playwright’s 85th birthday, some two dozen starry actors and fellow playwrights paid tribute anecdotally to his influence and his kindness, but mostly demonstrated his talent by performing scenes and songs from more than a half dozen of the plays and musicals in his six-decade career.

“More than any other American playwright, John’s work feels uncannily prophetic,” Tony Kushner said at the outset. “His plays, with an original combination of realism,dream state, psychopathology, vision, delusion, humor, compassion, grief and terror map out the landscape of what life feels like in the here and now.”

That is why he and actress Elizabeth Marvel cooked up “A Celebration of John Guare,” which is available online through February 9th.

The first staged readings of the evening were of scenes from one of his two best-known plays, “The House of Blue Leaves” (1971),  set in Sunnyside, Queens, on the day in 1965  when Pope Paul VI visited New York, with characters named Artie and Bunny and Bananas. These included a monologue by Mike Faist as Ronnie about how as a kid he spontaneously auditioned for a friend of the family visiting their home, a producer who was casting for a production of “Huckleberry Finn.” The family friend asked his parents whether he is mentally retarded. As he told this story, he was putting together a bomb, then donning a fake clerical collar, and making clear he’s going to do something that will get him in the news, and “be bigger than any of you.”

Later, “Chaucer in Rome” (2001) a sequel of sorts to “The House of Blue Leaves,” featured a worldly, entrepreneurial priest (“Whatever you want. Call me. I’m good to know.”) who’s been escorting pilgrims around Rome during the holy year. He provided a handy acronym for sin: Pale Gas (pride, avarice lust, envy and gluttony, anger, sloth)

Dylan Baker and Becky Ann Baker portrayed two people who share the same therapist, and toggle between flirtation and one-upmanship. (“I am in analysis. You are in therapy”) In a scene from “Bosoms and Neglect” (1979.)

Linda Lavin portrayed Allison an old girlfriend of Bing, played by Paul Dano, who is now a rich and famous writer, working on a new musical based on the Odyssey and the Illiad called Odead, in “Rich and Famous” (1974.) Allison, who is in an unhappy marriage, told Paul she felt abandoned by him when they were kids; Bing explained the priest told him to stay away from her because she was a tool of Satan. The humors exchange ended with Allison’s plea: “Write about me changing. You could call it ‘Tool of Satan.’ Give me a beautiful life, and then send me a copy. On second thought, don’t. Francis don’t like me getting mail.”

At the end of a couple of scenes from “Landscape of the Body” (1977), Ariana DeBose, who was portraying a dead woman, sang Frightened of You (“I’m frightened of you/Forgive me/I’m sorry/Don’t hit me/I love you”)   Among the other songs: Lavin sang “Hey Stay A While,” the title song of Guare’s cabaret revue; Ben Stiller sang Pearls from Guare’s musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy Two Gentlemen of Verona (1971)  (with the evening’s pianist Daniel Schlossberg joined by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks on guitar)

The last play excerpted is Guare’s best-known, “Six Degrees of Separation” (1990), in which Corey Hawkins played Paul the con man who was pretending to be Sidney Poitier’s son. What was most striking in these scenes is the realization that Paul is not just twisted; he is a quick and talented study, even something of an intellectual.

Amy Herzog, one of the many playwright who spoke at the celebration,  was Guare’s playwriting student at Yale: “If the work was bad he seemed to experience it as a moral offense,” she recalled. “Bt if he liked the work…I’ll never forget the day at the end of class as I was dropping my pages into the recycling bin, when John caught them and kissed them before sending them on their way to a new life.”

Meryl Streep read John Guare’s tribute to Edward Albee   – “I can’t do his voice, but God knows I would love to, and I got his bow tie,” she said – about how he was influenced to become a writer by Albee’s “Zoo Story,” and how Albee used the money he made from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” to in effect launch the Off-Off Broadway movement, of which Guare was a part, a beneficiary of Albee’s generosity. John Guare himself, Streep said, has championed the work of other playwrights for half a century. 

“In these times when writers move back and forth promiscuously between films and TV and hopefully the stage, he maintains an exquisite fidelity to the theater,” Streep said. “ He believes an audience still exists in the eye-drenched era of visual style to match his belief that the text of the play is at the heart of the theater. The eye can be seduced but the ear hears the truth.”

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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