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A CurtainUp Review
Chaucer in Rome
By Elyse Sommer
The set evokes Rome and all its glories as the artistic capital of the world. A fresco runs down the center of the faux marble floor, the facade at stage rear suggests an Italian mansion (and turns out to be the Academy of Rome). Then the lights dim with only a flicker from a single cigarette to break the darkness. When the lights go on again we see that the man belonging to the cigarette is a surgeon (Lee Wilkof). Also on stage is an artist named Matt (B. D. Wong), the patient on whom the doctor last wielded his scalpel to eradicate cancer caused by the toxic paints used to create his canvases, his art curator girl friend Sarah (Kali Rocha) and fellow Prix de Rome recipient Pete (Bruce Norris), an art historian whose grant is for research on "the fingernails of Christ."
That cigarette in the hands of a cancer fighting doctor sets us up for our latest visit to the world of John Guare's commentaries on the absurdities of modern life. The cancer which forces Matt to choose between his art (or, if truth be told, his dream of being a famous artist) and the background noises from a chorus of pilgrims who've arrived in Rome (Guare is anticipating the upcoming Holy Year) sets us up for a Guarian romp chockfull of verbal wit and detours into craziness. It also makes for a good news/bad news scenario. The operation is a success, but if Matt wants to remain cancer free he must trade his arsenic-based paints for a less toxic medium of self expression.
While Mr. Guare has been quoted as saying he never wants to look back, Chaucer In Rome, casts more than a cursory look over its shoulders to his first big hit The House of Blue Leaves. Pete and his parents are not named Shaughnessy (the family name of the Queens family in Blue Leaves) for nothing. The Schaughnessy parents (Polly Holliday and Jerry Hardin) are all the stereotypes of ordinary people living in ordinary places rolled into one dysfunctional (to put it mildly) family. The New York City neighborhood of Sunnyside, Queens near the Bliss Street subway seems to have been named to satisfy Mr. Guare's penchant for word play designed to show the darkness lurking beneath such idyllically named places. Where in Blue Leaves the zany doings were set in motion by the Pope's visit to New York (and the Shaughnessy son's determination to kill him), the new play brings their literary kinfolk to Rome along with the other Holy Year pilgrims -- in their case a double search, for the son who has run as far from them as possible as well as a clean slate for their sins (once again tied to the killing instinct).
Chaucer In Rome has the all of Guare's hallmarks -- the goofy detours into absurdism, the deeply black humor, lengthy discussions offering at once bizarre and profound views generously spiced with aphorisms. Like the good news/bad news of Matt's cancer surgery, it is not a 100% yes or no experience. The play leans too heavily on characters as narrators, the absurdist detours tend to undercut the major theme of people caught up in a crassly materialistic culture.
The Rome setting and the interplay of Holy Week pilgrimages with the career pilgrimages made to the Academy of Rome is enough fun to make the darkness of the comedy very easy to take and, until you reflect on its implications, enjoy. The playwright who is married to a key figure of the Academy clearly knows his way around the art world, which does not keep him from taking sly swipes at its insularity and elitism.
Nicholas Martin, whose superb direction made Bosoms and Neglect the highlight of this year's Signature Theater John Guare season, proves himself once again well-attuned to steering the roller-coaster plot developments. The pilgrims who serve as the play's chorus are never allowed to step over the line of being background figures. Their periodic appearance is orchestrated to give a sense of many more than the four actors actually used. The staging is true to Guare's antipathy for kitchen sink dramas, but with just enough of a realistic veneer.
The cast, several of whom have past experience with Guare's penchant for fantasy and lengthy discourses, is rock solid enough to overcome the inherent problem of their characters (too superficial or exaggerated to grip you by the heartstrings) and the dramatic structure (debate-like dialogue and speech-like narration). B. D. Wong's Matt is every inch the artist whose intensity is centered, first and foremost, on his own shallow ambition. He convincingly puts down less toxic forms of self-expression like collage, water colors ("Prince Charles uses water color to paint prissy British Landscapes!) and video tapes ("The last refuge of the untalented"). His paintings of his mother's death, makes his final seduction by what Henry James dubbed "the bitch goddess success" equally convincing. It is almost inevitable that he should come full circle after he has successfully embraced video tape "art" at its most controversial and shamelessly confides to a fawning interviewer (who else, but Charlie Rose?) that he thinks "painting is the last refuge of the untalented."
Bruce Norris as the art historian who persuades Matt to pose as a priest in order to video tape the innermost secrets of unsuspecting pilgrims, including his own parents, is both funny and touching, as a Faust caught in his own Faustian web. Polly Holliday and Jerry Hardin do well as Guare's latest incarnations of nutty Shaughnessys but they are allowed to go on too long so that at one point the play feels much longer than its otherwise fast-paced ninety minutes. Perhaps Mr. Guare, who I spotted at the rear of the theater, will fine tune this section of the play before it moves elsewhere.
The excellent Kali Rocha unfortunately doesn't have a particularly meaty part but the very opposite is true of Lee Wilkof. The actor who always does good work, here brings his droll dead-pan humor to an assortment of characters who could stand alone as Comedy Central show stoppers. Some of the play's best lines go to his pivotal character Father Shapiro, the very much of the fame worshipping world representative of the Pope; for example, his reaction to the non-believing Academy of Rome trio: "It's so refreshing to meet people who don't care a rat's ass about the Holy Year. Every day greedy pilgrims arrive. Make God give me this. Make God give me that. Have God change the world to fit me." The short, bald Wilkof is also a hoot as Charlie Rose fawningly telling Matt how "staggering" he finds his show and summing up the play's title via a critic's quote which called all "these Pilgrims' tales -- like Chaucer in Rome."
Your final assessment of the play, especially in what is essentially a preview production, relies on your sensibilities as a theater goer, your willingness to respect Mr. Guare's willingness to be as imperfect as the world and people he portrays.
Set Design: Alexander Dodge.
Costume Design: Michael Krass
Lighting Design: Donald Holder
Original Music Sound Design: Mark Bennett
Running Time: 2hours without intermission
From 5/1/0/01-7/29/01; opening 6/07/01.