A 'life force' to be reckoned with


Between John Guare and the best of American theater are zero degrees of separation.

June 20, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,sun theater critic

The bizarre is almost commonplace in John Guare's plays. Consider the stone lions that devour librarians in his one-act play, "A Day for Surprises." Or the sex-change character who, having been inseminated with his own sperm, gets to both father and mother a child in "Marco Polo Sings a Solo."

But real life also has a way of creeping into Guare's plays. In 1983, the playwright was having dinner in London with his friends Osborn Elliott, then dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and his wife, Inger, a former photojournalist. "Wait till you hear what happened to us," the Elliotts told him.

The couple proceeded to relate the tale of a young black con artist who won their trust and that of several other prominent New Yorkers by claiming he was the son of actor Sidney Poitier.

"It was just fantastic," Guare explained from his Greenwich Village apartment earlier this month. "Oddly enough, I didn't write it down."

The story stuck with him, however. Several years later, "I was writing something else and I suddenly found myself writing this," he recalls.

"This" is Guare's 1990 play, "Six Degrees of Separation," which is being produced at Center Stage by the Maryland Stage Company, the resident professional theater company of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, beginning Tuesday.

Celebrity worship, the quest for fame, the thin line between fantasy and reality, troubled parent-child relationships and the need to connect are some of the typical Guare themes that crop up in "Six Degrees." A play that intermingles the issues of race, class, identity and high-stakes art dealing, it is an intensely American work. And like most of Guare's plays, it moves fluidly between the extremes of comedy and tragedy.

Bestowing honors

At 61, Guare has built a body of work that includes 1971's "The House of Blue Leaves"; the Tony Award-winning book for the 1971 musical, "Two Gentlemen of Verona"; the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Louis Malle's 1980 movie, "Atlantic City"; and the screenplay for Fred Schepisi's 1993 film adaptation of "Six Degrees."

Described by fellow playwright Wendy Wasserstein as "the Life Force of the American Theater," and by Vogue magazine as "America's leading intellectual playwright," Guare was honored by being the 1998-1999 featured playwright at New York's Signature Theater, which focuses on one playwright each season (his predecessors have included Edward Albee, Arthur Miller and Sam Shepard).

"The whole year was nothing like I expected -- and a remarkable experience," Guare says, reflecting on his three-play Signature lineup, which began with "Marco Polo" (his 1973 offbeat turn-of-the-millennium comedy about a film director, an astronaut and the above-mentioned transsexual) and "Bosoms and Neglect" (his 1979 play about a man's relationship with his cancer-stricken mother and with one of his fellow psycho-therapy patients).

"I described [the Signature season] like being in an Oliver Sacks episode -- like coming out of a coma and saying, 'I'm still in rehearsal with this?' " he kids.

Always the playwright

The season was supposed to culminate with Guare's "Lydie Breeze" plays, a series he began two decades ago about a utopian community in 19th-century Nantucket.

When budgetary considerations ruled that out, he went back to two of his short pieces from the 1960s and reworked them into a new play called "Lake Hollywood," which takes place at a New Hampshire lakeside resort in the 1940s as well as the present day. "I never put a play together so quickly," he says.

Maybe not, but putting plays together is something this native New Yorker has been doing since he was 11 years old. Back then, he wrote three short plays and convinced a friend that they could get written up in Life magazine if they staged the plays in the friend's Long Island garage and donated the proceeds to orphans. Life ignored them, but the local newspaper sent a photographer. And Guare's parents rewarded him with a typewriter on his next birthday.

His parents -- who were both stage-struck -- continued to encourage their only child. His father, a Wall Street clerk who hated his job, had once been an office boy for George M. Cohan. "He loved it. Then his family found out about it and made him quit," Guare says. His mother had two uncles in vaudeville and always hoped to join their act, but "she wasn't allowed to ... because only bad girls went into show business," he explains.

His mother also kept hoping that she would be "discovered" by her brother, Billy Grady, who was head of casting for MGM. When Guare was a child, he harbored a similar hope. His uncle was visiting the family while scouring the country for a boy to play Huckleberry Finn. No sooner did Grady arrive than young John burst into a full-scale audition.

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