I’d been out of town now for several weeks, starting at the end of May, but I had one theater booking in early June that I didn’t want to cancel if I didn’t have to. So on Thursday, 6 June, I rode back to New York City to catch the last play in the Atlantic Theater Company’s 2012-13 season, John Guare’s newest work, 3 Kinds of Exile, at the Linda Gross Theater on Friday evening. Now, I hadn’t really enjoyed this season at ATC, which included Harper Regan by Simon Stephens, Melissa James Gibson’s What Rhymes With America, and The Lying Lesson by Craig Lucas. (The reports on these productions are all on ROT; see the posts on 20 October 2012, 3 January 2013, and 6 April 2013, respectively.) I had hopes for Exile because I figured that even when Guare’s not at his best, he’s at least interesting and I could use the up-lift. (The season I followed at the Signature Theatre Company was more enjoyable, but I suffered a disappointment there as well when the final production of the David Henry Hwang series, which I’d been finding fascinating, was postponed until 2014.)
Well, I was to suffer a final dissatisfaction in Chelsea that Friday evening. At the risk of spoiling the prospect for someone else (the show closed its short run on Sunday, 23 June, so that’s not likely now), I have to report that Exile failed for me and Diana, my frequent theater companion, even on the limited score I anticipated. It not only wasn’t interesting, I can’t figure out what Guare, winner of a Tony (Two Gentlemen of Verona, 1972) and an Olivier Award (Six Degrees of Separation, 1993), is on about or why he even wrote the piece (it’s not really a play in my opinion, as I’ll explain shortly). Just to make the whole experience, which included a 4-hour bus ride from Maryland (and a 4½-hour one to go back coming the day after the performance), it was pouring down rain Friday evening and the theater’s too close to my apartment to get there any other way than by foot. (I really dislike contending with rain gear at the theater, but this time I had to wear a rain jacket and hat and carry an umbrella—which, to add insult to injury, didn’t survive the squall.) The entire event was a complete bust for me and Diana (who’s even less tolerant of bad theater than I am).
3 Kinds of Exile, which began previews on 15 May and opened on 11 June, was a world première, so I’d read nothing about it before seeing the production. I hadn’t even paid any attention to the promotional squib in ATC’s brochure or any of the listings published or posted. It was a pig in a poke, but I was encouraged, as I said, by the fact that it was a new play by John Guare, whose work (including House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees) I’ve always found at least surprising. Well, I suppose this was a surprise, too—just not a pleasant one. First of all, Exile is made up of three separate pieces, connected by two aspects of their subject matter: they’re all about people from Poland and Czechoslovakia and the central figures are “artists, all of whom forged complicated lives in the West.” The production ran 100 minutes without an intermission and the first piece, “Karel,” is a long monologue in which the Actor (that’s what he’s called in the program, played by Martin Moran) recounts the story of a friend sent to England as a child on the eve of World War II, never to return to his native country (which, in this case, isn’t actually identified, but is clearly an East European nation). The second segment, called “Elzbieta Erased,” is about an émigrée actress who’d been a big star in Poland in the ’50s (and whom the playwright knew), but it, too, is narrated—this time by two men, A (played by the playwright himself) and B (Omar Sangare), standing behind a pair of lecterns. The final piece is a sort of playlet, entitled “Funiage,” which depicts (partially enacted this time, though also largely recited) the story of Witold Gombrowicz, 1904-69 (David Pittu), the “greatest unknown Argentine writer in Poland in the ’30s,” as the character says of himself, who’s sent by some “very official Officials” of the Polish government to be a kind of literary ambassador to Polish émigrés in Buenos Aires, to keep them apprised of the wonders of Polish culture and arts while they are in exile. Gombrowicz was caught in Argentina when Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and remained there, an expatriate until he returned to Europe in 1963 and died in France five years later at the age of 64.
Let me approach the acting and other production aspects first, then tackle the script—the reverse of the way I usually discuss performances which I write up for ROT. (The rationale here is that I can dispatch the production elements rather quickly, I think, and move on to the heavier examination.) First, I’ll report that I can’t say much about the acting because there was so little of it in evidence. The second part of Exile is hardly acted at all—and Guare’s no actor, that’s certain—with the most staging on display the crisscross the two narrators make periodically when they switch lecterns. Standing side by side, A at stage right center at the start and B on stage left, both men gesticulated with their hands a great deal, but Sangare was excessive. Now, some of this may have come from the fact that there’s no actual action in the piece (accounting, I’m sure, for director Neil Pepe’s use of that frequent crisscrosses), so the actors, perhaps encouraged by Pepe, used their hands and arms to fill the void. Guare’s gesticulative performance may have been the consequence of his lack of acting experience—this is billed as his “acting début”—but his movements were far less smooth and assured than Sangare’s (who reminded me at times of Geoffrey Holder who has a supremely relaxed and graceful physicality on stage). Sangare, however, also appeared in “Funiage” and displayed the same technique so I presume it’s a stage mannerism of his. With nothing else to off-set it, all that hand-waving and pointing was distracting to the point of annoyance.
(I hate to raise this additional criticism because I know it sounds a little xenophobic, but Sangare, who is Afro-Polish—his father is Malian—has an accent so thick it’s often impenetrable. There were times it sounded as if he’d learned his lines phonetically, though as a tenured professor at Williams College, I presume he speaks English well enough to teach in it. He also studied at the British American Drama Academy in Oxford, England. Ironically, one of the factoids in the biography of Elzbieta—her last name, which aside from being difficult for Americans to spell, is nearly unpronounceable to an English-speaker (“In America my name sounds like a bad hand in Scrabble,” the text quotes the actress as saying), is seldom used in the script—is that her heavy accent made it impossible for her to get acting work once she emigrated to New York in 1966. I don’t know if Guare saw this irony when he wrote the lines—which, as I recall, he delivered, not Sangare—or if it was an accident of the casting.)
As for physical production, in addition to the two lecterns at center stage, there were numerous projections on the cloth draped over the stage’s rear wall. (Exile’s sets were by Takeshi Kata, lights by Donald Holder, costumes by Susan Hilferty, and projections by Dustin O’Neill.) These began with the reproduction of a full-length portrait of Elzbieta (by scenic designer, producer, and director John Wulp), reportedly hanging in the office of Andre Bishop at the Lincoln Center Theater Company (where the actress never actually performed but where Guare is co-editor of the Lincoln Center Theater Review). When the slide was first shown, with a woman in a long, wine-red, apparently velvet gown, I whispered, “Is that Helen Mirren?”—because, well, that’s who it looked like. Shortly afterwards, Guare asked the same question from the stage: “Is that Helen Mirren?” (The painting is apparently entitled, appropriately, The Red Dress.) Other projections, pictures of Elzbieta as a child, a teen, a young actress, other images pertinent to the tale being told (though hardly vital), followed now and then—they weren’t a constant presence—ending again with The Red Dress, which was then shown in increasingly closer and closer detail until the actress’s head filled the slide at the end of the performance (showing that she resembled Mirren less than it at first seemed—more like her older cousin). It all seemed to me like more substitutes for action and dramatic content. Poor (and ineffective) substitutes as far as I’m concerned.
In “Karel,” Moran, who’s presented a few of his own solo performances (All the Rage, The Tricky Part), hopped all over the stage—there was no set at all, not even the lecterns or projections of “Elzbieta Erased”—once again, I gather, to add activity to compensate for the lack of action. I can’t say Moran did this poorly or well because it was so unconnected to what the Actor was saying, so arbitrary and inorganic, that any assessment would be based on insufficient evidence. The performance was, if you will, a kind of “oral interp” on the fly—a radio speech, perhaps, onto which movement was grafted to appease a live audience. To no avail, in my estimation.
(“Oral interp,” or oral interpretation, for those who are not of the theater or are too young to know about this archaic training and performing technique, is also sometimes known as “readers’ theater.” It’s acting with the voice alone, usually in readings either from plays or, often, from non-dramatic material like novels, short stories, and poems. Radio drama was a practical application of the technique, but there isn’t much of that around anymore. It was taught in acting schools and elocution classes as a method of training the actors’ voices for projection, enunciation, variety and expressiveness, flexibility, accents, and other kinds of vocal techniques. It was occasionally actually performed, often by amateur groups—Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood is a favorite script for readers’ theater performance—but one famous West End and Broadway production in which it was used was 1951’s Don Juan in Hell, an adaptation of the third act of Shaw’s Man and Superman in which all the actors—Charles Boyer, Cedric Hardwicke, Charles Laughton, and Agnes Moorehead—wore evening clothes. Of course, with a cast like that, listening to talking heads comes close to being a delight! Exile, not so much.)
The third part of the production, “Funiage,” is the only piece that comes close to being play-like. First of all, there are multiple actors (and, hence, characters); second, the actors are playing parts and they’re doing something more than standing and talking. There’s precious little real interaction, however, and the ensemble was only slightly differentiated—except one, they were most often dressed in black suits and bowler hats that had no character identification—and the actors played several characters in the story each. (They donned character-identifying clothing pieces as needed, such as when Peter Maloney changed from the suit he wore as Gombrowicz’s disapproving father to the uniform coat of the ship captain.) Only Pittu, as Gombrowicz, and Sangare, as Gonzalo (“a symbolic mystery man” in the words of Adam Feldman in Time Out New York), stuck with one role. (Sangare wore a while suit, really making him reminiscent of Geoffrey Holder.) The performance style, with pseudo-Brechtian touches, was non-realistic and very mannered, almost mechanical at times, as was some of the speech. Furthermore, the playlet has still another inherently anti-theatrical element because Gombrowicz speaks in the third person, narrating his own story even as Pittu acted it out on a rudimentary level.
“Funiage” is a sort of musical—or a “play with music,” as this kind of performance might have been called in the late 20th century when it was a new idea. Among the ensemble of nine is a pianist (Timothy Splain) who plays original music composed by Josh Schmidt (Adding Machine, Fifty Words, A Minister's Wife) as the cast sings lyrics written by Guare (who also wrote songs for Landscape of the Body in 1977). I’ll say that the music in “Funiage” added to its theatricality, badly needed at the end of the longest 100 minutes I’d spent in the theater in quite some time, but didn’t increase the playlet’s effectiveness as drama or its interest in terms of the subject—and it certainly didn’t help the two flat pieces that went before.
The set of “Funiage” was a sort of organized clutter: lots of bits and pieces strewn or piled about the stage, some of which were used as props or costume bits as needed. They didn’t evoke a specific environment, such as, say, the ship on which Gombrowicz sailed to Argentina or the streets of Buenos Aires, but it was more visually intriguing that the two setless first parts of the production. Like the music, however, the presence of set design didn’t end up having all that much overall effect.
Now let’s look at the material Pepe and ATC were working with. I’ll start with the company’s own blurb:
“With great psychological insight and arresting theatricality [the italics are my insertion], John Guare presents us with three artists, all of whom forged complicated lives in the West, having struggled and suffered amid the cultural and political turmoil of Eastern Europe in the mid-20th century.” Not in my opinion. What I sat through is neither “insightful” nor “theatrical.” (I won’t comment on “arresting.” The obvious is too tempting.) In fact, the bulk of Exile is anti-theatrical and “Funiage” displayed an excess of false theatricality imposed on the basically narrated story.
“Drawing from the experiences of three real exiles from Czechoslovakia and Poland, Guare weaves the stories of these lives into a riveting dramatic tapestry and probes the meaning of home, identity and how we carry the past with us.” No again. The stories aren’t “woven” in any meaning of the word; Exile is no “tapestry,” just a tangle of loose threads. The whole of Exile is a pastiche and each segment appears to be thrown together nearly haphazardly as if Guare had all these factoids on hand and was determined to use them all one way or another. Never mind “riveting” or “dramatic”: I think I’ve already covered those. And if Guare’s “probing” anything, I never figured it out. I mean, sure, the three artists are far from home, some voluntarily, others under duress, but I didn’t see any exploration of what that means—just a lot of anecdotes, some bizarre, some poignant, and some mundane, that seemed to touch on every possible subject and illuminated none. The story the Actor tells in “Karel,” for instance, asks, “How much of your life have you made up? How much of your life are you a stranger to?” But asking a question, however thought-provoking, isn’t an exploration, and though it was a provocative idea, illustrated by the Actor’s tale, it was ultimately superficial, overloaded, as it was, with verbal gimmickry and unnecessary and frenetic movement.
ATC’s promotional statement (which appeared not only in its seasonal brochure but in all its publicity and press releases and was widely quoted in listings and on Internet sites) may have been what the company hoped Guare had done, and it may even have been what Guare intended to have done—but it’s not what I experienced sitting in the house and watching the final result. Diana, in fact, insisted that the final piece was about what she expected from a high school company (though I suggested a college-level troupe because of the sophisticated styles attempted). “It’s Guare in his dotage,” she affirmed. (The playwright’s 75, by the way.)
Now I’ll be a bit more comprehensive about the plots. “Karel,” the first piece, is an extended tale of a man (one blogger identified the title character as Karel Reisz, 1926-2002, a Czech-born British filmmaker, but his name isn’t used and no bio details are provided in the monologue) with a mysterious, apparently psychosomatic rash which he can’t cure and which spreads all over his body. The Actor goes back to fill in the backstory, recounting that at the age of 12, just before the start of World War II, his friend had been sent by his mother to England in a Kindertransport and had remained there. On the train to England, the boy traveled with another child who teased him about his attachment to his mother—his father had already been imprisoned—and now, years later, the man surmises that the unforgotten bully is the source of the itchy rash. The monologue ends with a slight twist which I won’t reveal, but Guare also employs a moderately confusing tactic in his storytelling. At the outset, the Actor speaks of his friend in the third person but shifts to first person, as if he’d morphed into “Karel.” I don’t know why Guare did this, and it didn’t make the monologue any more theatrical or interesting. (Reisz, a well-known filmmaker in Britain—Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Morgan!, Isadora, The French Lieutenant's Woman—also staged the occasional play. One of these was Guare’s Gardenia for the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1982.)
“Elzbieta Erased” is a revision of Elzbieta, a one-act play Guare wrote for ATC’s 25 x 10 series in May 2011. It’s a bio of famous Polish actress Elzbieta Czyzewska (1938-2010) who married David Halberstam, the New York Times correspondent in Warsaw at the time, and then accompanied him back to New York. The presentation—it’s not only not a play it’s not a dialogue, either, but a tag-team lecture (the New York Times’ Charles Isherwood said it was “a kind of running dialectic” but though the “running” part is accurate, that characterization makes it sound more enlightening than I found it)—provides the highlights of the actress’s life: a successful career in Poland, her marriage to the journalist, her exile from her homeland because of the marriage to a foreigner and a Jew, her fruitless years in America, and her death in obscurity. There are plenty of dropped names in the script, including Meryl Streep, Elaine Stritch, and William Styron. (Guare acknowledges that Elzbieta, whom he’d met on Nantucket, was the inspiration for Lydie Breeze. He wrote a part in the play, a Polish woman, for her but when Lydie Breeze transferred from its workshop to production at the American Place Theatre in 1982, the part became Irish. In 1994, she also starred in the Polish premiere of John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation at the Teatr Dramatyczny in Warsaw, a production in which Omar Sangare also appeared.)
There’s irony in the fact that Halberstam first met Elzbieta when he saw her perform in Warsaw in 1965 as Maggie, the Marilyn Monroe surrogate in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, a play I’ve always felt was an indulgence by Miller who needed to exorcise the ghosts left from the failure of that marriage. Here Guare engages in the same sort of self-indulgence, thumb-sucking over his pinball association with Elzbieta whom he tried to help get work in America but was never able assist to regain her status as an important theater artist. Like Miller’s failed marriage to Monroe, I suspect Guare regrets his inability to help Elzbieta. Hence, “Elzbieta Erased.” But also like Miller’s private struggle—why do the rest of us have to suffer through it?
"Funiage" is a condensed biography of the critically-respected absurdist novelist and playwright who spent most of his life as an expatriate in Argentina. (While Gombrowicz is in Buenos Aires, he’s essentially forced into a marriage by his father/the ship’s captain—but the ceremony becomes a combination wedding and burial, thus “funiage”: funeral + marriage. It’s supposed to be portentous.) The playlet is based on Gombrowicz’s 1948 drama The Marriage and his 1953 novel Trans-Atlantyk, from a literal translation by Omar Sangare. Guare has chosen to emulate his subject’s style with a Brecht-inspired absurdism. (I imagine this accounts for the self-narration, emulating Brecht’s occasional technique of having characters say things like “he said” or “she asked,” referring to themselves.) In the end, though, Gombrowicz never comes into focus as a character and the playlet, for all Guare’s gimmickry, never seemed to gel into a cohesive statement of anything.
The press seems to have been more generous with Guare and Exile than I’ve been. (At the time I wrote this report, many review outlets, including the theater press, hadn’t published notices of 3 Kinds of Exile. Much of the press that published, in addition, was rather brief in its coverage.) They appear to have found more value in the endeavor than I did, especially the middle piece. I don’t understand that, to tell you the truth, but perhaps they’re inclined to be charitable because it’s a John Guare script. (There was near unanimity in the estimation that “Funiage” was the production’s least successful effort and that “Elzbieta” was the most stimulating. I saw no distinction, as you’ve probably noticed.) In the Times, Isherwood didn’t articulate an overall judgment, but he characterized “Elzbieta” as the “most engaging of the evening’s offerings,” finding the other two “less rewarding” with “Karel” coming in as “little more than an amplified anecdote.” “Funiage,” reported Isherwood, “is the most ambitious of the three plays, but also the most unsatisfying”; the reviewer found it “mighty unwieldy.” “Elzbieta Erased,” concluded the Timesman, is “the haunting, more cogently related story.” While Isherwood noted a few of the performances, including both Guare and Sangare (“a smoothly handsome actor with penetrating eyes and a silky voice”) as well as Martin Moran and David Pittu, he makes no critical assessment of Neil Pepe’s directing. In Long Island’s Newsday, Linda Winer described Exile as “one third revelatory, one third beguiling and the last third, well, perplexing.” She also found “Elzbieta” to be “the treasure” of the evening, and declared, “What sounds like an academic structure is, instead, a vibrant, multileveled portrait of a woman who needs to be known.” Winer reported that “Karel” “turns out to be a chilling little ghost story” and “Funiage” “is an exaggerated expressionist cabaret” whose “absurdist-fable style is tiresome.” Like Isherwood, Winer mentioned some of the cast (the same ones as the Times writer), but says nothing about the directing, set, costumes, and so on. “The best sits right next to the worst” wrote Elisabeth Vincentelli in the New York Post of 3 Kinds of Exile, the three parts of which “vary wildly in quality.” (“Unfortunately there’s no intermission that would allow a discreet exit after the second playlet,” she added, echoing a remark Diana made to me after the performance.) The Post reviewer called “Elzbieta” “the evening’s crown jewel” but described “Funiage,” the “mediocre epilogue,” as “painful attempts at comic absurdity and [an] erratic mix of styles.” Vincentelli dubbed “Elzbieta” “a beautiful duet,” but her description of the closing playlet, as far as I’m concerned, applies to the whole production: “Surrounded by a mediocre ensemble clunkily directed by Neil Pepe.”
In the Daily News, asserting, “Pop music teaches that two out of three ain’t bad,” Joe Dziemianowicz summed up the production by observing that Exile is “a dramatic triptych with a final chapter tedious enough to sour the sweet riches preceding it.” (I can’t agree with the Newsman’s calculus. But maybe that’s just me.) Of that last segment, Dziemianowicz wrote that it was a “noisy and trying exercise.” His final word, in the form of a lesson in dramaturgy, was: “When a writer loses his audience and has them thinking of escape that’s a fourth kind of exile.” Though the writing in “Karel” is “the best of the evening” in the opinion of the Village Voice’s Alexis Soloski, “Elzbieta Erased” is “less anguished and more arch.” Soloski suggested, “Only ‘Funiage’ . . . seems a misjudgment” because, she asserted, “the antics of this neo-vaudeville feel far more labored than playful and Pepe's directorial hand too evident and self-conscious.” Her other comment about this piece sums up my impression of the entire production: “There is much dashing about, to little effect.” TONY’s reviewer Feldman echoed Dziemianowicz’s reference to Meat Loaf and went on to describe “Funiage,” “the bad one,” as “a precious, collegiate ‘Brechtian’ cabaret” in which the bowler hat-wearing actors “divvy up stiff, translated-sounding lines.” Pronounced Feldman, “it’s all rather painful to watch.” The man from TONY affirmed that the first two pieces were “more rewarding.” With “Karel” presenting a “simple” story whose “language is vivid” while “the engrossing cautionary tale” of “Elzbieta Erased” is a “picture hidden in a game of historical connect-the-dots.”
In the cybersphere (which was offering slim pickings at this writing), Jennifer Farrar of the Associated Press called the three stories of Exile “affecting” and the collection a “dynamic new play” on the Huffington Post. The AP reviewer also dubbed Guare’s acting stint as “very effective.” Overall, Farrar said, director Pepe “provides crisp direction and diverse staging for each of the three tales, which provide stirring examples of overcoming fear and living with courage and humanity.” “Elzbieta” “is eloquently narrated by Guare (as himself) and co-narrated and archly enacted by Omar Sangare,” the AP writer asserted, and “Funiage” is “a well-choreographed, feverish bad dream.” On Talkin’ Broadway, Matthew Murray was by far the most positive reviewer. He saw in Exile “an involving look at how the lines between political and personal alienation may frequently blur” and “an intensely theatrical outing,” which I think greatly overstates the truth. Of “Karel,” Murray only said that “Moran effectively declares (and Pepe stages) [the monologue] with a minimum of emotional filigree,” but he called “Funiage” “a series of barely linked skits” which Schmidt’s music helps transform “into those of an on-again-off-again musical-comedy picaresque.” “It can be exhausting to watch,” asserted Murray, “but it's a riveting evocation.” And though it had to “survive the evening's worst presentation” (and “Pepe's static staging”), “Elzbieta” is a “potentially enveloping saga” that became “more off-putting than it has any right to be.” (One reason, lamented Murray, was Guare’s “faint, toneless bark of a delivery [which] is utterly divorced from the words’ content.”) TheaterMania’s Zachary Stewart described Exile as a “surprising and insightful new play” in which “Karel” “serves as an appetizer” for the rest of the production, “Elzbieta” becomes “a really good cocktail-party story,” and “Funiage” is “by far the most theatrical.” The last piece, Stewart asserted, is “a giant, extended, well-produced Polish joke” (though I’m not sure how that’s a good thing), but he observed that “Elzbieta” “could have easily become tedious and self-involved”—which is precisely what I found it to be. The reviewer summed up his comments by asserting, “Guare captures the essence of the immigrant experience with an uncommon sensitivity.” That may be true, but, in my opinion (humble or otherwise), only if you can sift through the verbiage and phony theatricality which seems to me to have been added just as eyewash (a term we used in the army to mean flashy aspects of a presentation or report that looked good but didn’t really mean anything).