LANDSCAPE OF A PLAYWRIGHT -- John Guare's fertile visions

Playwright John Guare's genius lies in his ability to make his plays more bizarre than real life, and considering the competition -- Son of Sam, Anita Bryant, Tony Orlando -- that's no mean feat. Also impressive is his knack for finding in even the most preposterous of circumstances an emotional reality. Guare seems to cloak his characters in comic exaggeration for the sheer pleasure of stripping them bare. And he tricks us into thinking he's talking about some outrageous other when all the while he's creeping up on our deepest fears. We all like to believe we're in control of our lives. We try to believe what we've been told about doing our duty, making something of ourselves. But always there is the nagging suspicion that we've been somehow fooled, that everything we know is wrong. This uneasy sense permeates all Guare's plays, but is perhaps most graphically illustrated in his most recent, Landscape of the Body. It ends with a woman's literally taking all the information she's assimilated over the years and tossing it, piece by scribbled piece, into the sea. "My life," she concludes, "is a triumph of all the things I don't know."

The woman is also performing this cleansing ritual when the curtain goes up on Landscape, but at that point we don't know what it means. All we see is a pasty-faced, raincoat-clad matron sitting, surrounded by her shopping bags, on a ferry bound for Nantucket. She slips notes into tiny bottles and furtively tosses them overboard. A man in a trenchcoat stands at the railing trying to engage her in small talk, but she doesn't respond. She wants to be alone: at any rate, she refuses to gossip about the Kennedys with a stranger wearing an obviously fake nose and mustache. He persists, finally coaxing her into an exchange of trivia about the Dionne quintuplets. Having won her momentary attention, he beams with pride: "What attracted you to me first?"

This scene, as mentioned, reappears at the end of the evening. But by that time the play has unraveled, all disguises have been discarded, and what seemed a daffy, baffling encounter between a bag lady -- one of Lily Tomlin's "urban victims" -- and an ersatz Groucho is revealed as the bleak aftermath of a chain of events that has devastated and profoundly changed both parties. The masked man is Holohan, a police detective who has tried to prove the woman, a middle-aged divorcee named Betty, responsible for the grisly murder of her 14-year-old son.

Most of Landscape of the Body consists of Holohan's grueling interrogation of Betty and flashbacks reconstructing her recent history. Betty had arrived in New York City, a nervous innocent with her boy Bert in tow, to persuade her estranged sister Rosalie to return to the family manse in Maine. But Sis soon met a messy demise under the wheels of a speeding bicycle -- after which she returned from the grave with piano accompanist and silver lame wardrobe to set scenes, sing songs and emcee the show, as if to prove that death, too, is a cabaret. Betty, for reasons unexplained, took over Rosalie's apartment, her part-time porno career and her job at a sleazy firm specializing in bogus "honeymoon holidays." This concern was run by an hysterical Hispanic named Raulito, who augmented his three-piece business suit with a '40s ruby-red evening gown, a "Rita Hayworth special," because it made him feel "rich, successful, out of the jungle."

Meanwhile, son Bert had fallen in with a pubescent punk named Donny. Together they would lure gay men to vacant apartments, hit them on the head with a monkey wrench and steal their watches and wallets. When Betty's potential Prince Charming arrived in the form of a wealthy Southerner, she went with him to visit his Carolina estate. On her return to New York, she found that Raulito was in the morgue, her decapitated son had been fished from the Hudson, and she was the prime suspect. Once cleared, she packs her possessions in paper bags and flees the city -- bringing us back to the ridiculous reunion on the ferry. Guare has punctured the cartoon coating, plunged through layers alternating manic absurdity with savage realism, and arrived at the play's core. What seemed at first arbitrarily comic -- crazy lady flinging bottled messages into briny deep -- turns out to be not only logical, but terribly sad.

Like his other plays, Landscape is about discontented people trying to escape unmanageable lives through dreams. In House of Blue Leaves, Guare's first full-length work, zookeeper Arnie Shaughnessy hopes to quit his dreary life and demented wife for a glamorous career as a movie songwriter. Rich and Famous depicts earnest young playwright Bing Ringling's pursuit of Broadway superstardom and takes place on the opening night of his first produced play, an "autobiographical" adaptation of Dante's Divine Comedy. Marco Polo Sings a Solo, an almost Chekhovian study of the would-be chi-chi set on a fjord in the year 1999, is about (among other things) screenwriter Stony McBride's attempt to attain heroic stature vicariously through intergalactic explorer Frank Schaeffer. Whereas the protagonist in each of these plays seeks fulfillment through some explicit public accomplishment, Landscape of the Body chronicles a quest that is, as the title suggests, more personal. Betty's search for clues to the mystery of her son's death becomes a search for her own identity, the exploration of an interior terrain as barren and as terrifying as any outer space.

When Landscape of the Body opened in New York, where it is currently playing at the Public Theater, it met with the mixed critical response which has become, for Guare, typical. At 39, he may indeed be "the world's oldest living promising young playwright" -- a line from Rich and Famous, which is in part a satirical self-portrait. Though Landscape is more ambitious than Rich and Famous or House of Blue Leaves (Guare's least complicated play and his most popular, apart from the book and lyrics he provided for the musical Two Gentlemen of Verona) and more workable than the sprawling Marco Polo, the new play reflects its author's usual problems. He tends to overwrite; his attempts to combine the serious and the comic sometimes result in bad jokes, and he peppers his work with clever little songs and transitional monologues which make the play seem all the more fragmented.

Yet, while none of his plays completely succeeds, Guare is too inventive, both verbally and theatrically, to dismiss. His wild imagination seems deliberately -- if sometimes catastrophically -- set on a collision course with his grim vision of a cruel and chaotic world. When these forces meet, the result is a twisted, improbably, hilarious fusion of Tom Stoppard and Martin Scorsese. Paradoxically, Guare's fevered brain is his greatest asset and his worst enemy. Each of his plays is stuffed with enough ideas to last most writers a lifetime; but only a few can be developed. Guare must realize by now (if he reads his reviews) that he could achieve greater commercial success with simpler projects -- like House of Blue Leaves. That he refuses to mend his ways, to fall back on the things he knows he can handle, is at once perverse and admirable.

Because no matter how unwieldy his plays are, Guare is saying something important. More than any other contemporary American playwright, he has zeroed in on our society's tendency to confuse fantasy, reality and media hype. Guare's characters have ingested the debris of modern culture so completely that they are no longer capable of distinguishing between life and Let's Make a Deal, happiness and headlines, truth and talk shows. In House of Blues Leaves, Arnie's pathetic wife mourns the fact that she knows more about Jackie Kennedy than she knows about herself. (Our obsession with celebrities is a current that also runs through the later plays.) In Rich and Famous, Bing's childhood friend, now a movie star, sells the rights to his spectacular suicide to Norman Mailer. In Marco Polo, Stony's wife asks the maid for "a diet fudge, diet soda, anything with diet in the title." And in Landscape, a creepy young girl is so immersed in lurid, National Enquirer-style death tales (like the one about the black widow spiders in the beehive hairdo) that she has no qualms about her own participation in a hideous murder. (Guare's fiction turns out to be not far removed from fact: consider the recent Florida defense of a young man accused of murder, in which the crime was chalked up to the defendant's having watched too much violence on television.)

The mortality rate in Landscape is unusually high, even for Guare -- in fact, its gruesome quality may account for some of the hostile reaction it has engendered. But the multiple deaths are neither gratuitous nor burlesqued -- they serve to underline Betty's helplessness against a world she can't control. And the shift here from the characters' reverence for media-fed junk culture to their concentration on pulp-mag morbidity gives Landscape the kind of cohesiveness Guare's past work has lacked. Until now, one was more likely to remember his plays in terms of specific scenes: the wife's fantasy monologue on Jackie Kennedy in Blue Leaves, Bing's surreal confrontation with his parents in Rich and Famous; the scene in Marco Polo where Stony learns the truth about his virgin birth. But in Landscape of the Body, Guare has succeeded in writing a play that, no matter how much it falters along the way, impresses as a whole. It may mark a crucial turning point in his career.

Boston Phoenix, November 1, 1977