There is an inherent pitfall in such movements as surrealism, Dadaism, and absurdism. They depend on cleverly manipulated nonsense, but whereas sense lends itself to an infinite variety, all nonsense is basically alike. Absurdism achieved considerable heights in France, but both there and abroad such epigones as Arrabal, Pinget, Pinter, Mrozek, Havel, and others had very little to add.
In America, Albee, Gelber, Richardson, and McNally experimented with it with modest success. It left its imprint on some later playwrights such as Sam Shepard and John Guare. And this year, the Signature Theatre Company offers a season of Guare, starting with his perhaps most absurdist play, Marco Polo Sings a Solo(1977). It is said that in a person 21 years means maturity, but Marco Polo, despite some awkward updating by the author, has not grown up. It comes across as containing (as I once wrote about Guare’s contribution to the musical Two Gentlemen of Verona) “sporadic cleverness and much immature self-indulgence.”
Marco Polo has more plot than I could begin to summarize, and absolutely no story. It brings together in 1999 some unlikely cartoon figures partly on an iceberg in Norway, where they are partying or making a movie about Marco Polo, and partly in outer space, which 21 years ago seemed more exotic than it does today. It is part intergalactic fantasy, part apocalyptic vaudeville, part sophomoric social satire, and part attenuated bedroom farce. Its topical references have badly dated; its surreal logorrhea was dated when it was written.
A pianist says, “I recorded this three times. Once when I was 28. Then again when I was 18. Then again when I was 8.” Someone has a friend in South America who “raises leopards. Lobotomizes them. Takes out their vocal chords. Grafts on the vocal chords of hummingbirds. Amputates their tails. Grafts on coral snakes. Quite striking.” Every once in a while it gets better than that. Often, worse.
It was not a good idea to bring back the original director, Mel Shapiro, who, his assertions to the contrary, does not have a new take on the play. And this time round he has indifferent designers and inferior actors. Bruce Norris is engaging as the hero. Polly Holliday and Chuck Cooper are miscast. Jack Koenig, Robert Morgan, and Opal Alladin are mediocre (the last-named in a part in which Sigourney Weaver enchanted), and Judith Hawking is profoundly unappealing and untalented in a role sparklingly created by Madeline Kahn.
I wonder why Signature did not choose to begin with one of Guare’s much more interesting early works, such as Muzeeka or Cop-Out, instead of Marco Polo, which a good many people, myself included, left after its hypertrophic first act. The play’s pianist-heroine remarks, “It’s so easy to get brilliant reviews. You simply sit at the piano every day for twenty years with the moss growing up your legs, sparrows nesting in your hair, bringing dead men in raincoats back to life.” I don’t know about the moss and sparrows, but I can affirm that no one or nothing was brought back to life here.
I have seen the harrowing climax of Gypsy as performed by Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Linda Lavin, and Tyne Daly (let’s not mention Bette Midler). But until you catch “Rose’s Turn” as done by Betty Buckley at the Paper Mill Playhouse, you have not experienced the full, complex effect. Merman had the most dreadnought-like impact, but Buckley offers more. Despite unhelpful lighting by Mark Stanley, she illuminates the stage with her own sheet lightning: spooky, unpredictable, pervasive.
Her rendition takes her way beyond bulldozing; it is pathetic, heartbreaking, terrifying, mad. It evokes tears, but freezes them mid-cheek. It is not just a woman going to pieces after partial success; it is the triumph in defeat or defeat in triumph of a stymied soul that achieves for another what it really wanted for itself; it is the rage of a frustrated volcano that sizzles, sputters, and implodes.
The great singing actress’s face contorts in contradictory directions; the fingers claw palpable holes into the air; the body coils and uncoils; the legs are in overdrive. But the voice – a glorious, wounded panther of a voice – will not be silenced. It tears through its pain to a bruised victory: This Rose was a force of nature; this performer is one. If the entire production were on this level (as several other scenes, such as the hapless parting with the faithful Herbie, are), this would be the ne plus ultra in Gypsys: the dream of Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim, and Jule Styne come impossibly, unimprovably true.
The production does have an irresistible Herbie – warm but never mushy, gentle but masculine – in Lenny Wolpe. Also a perfectly decent Louise in Deborah Gibson, though for my money Crista Moore was the definitive one. The tried and true trio of Anna McNeely, Jana Robbins, and Dorothy Stanley is in top form as the three strippers with a gimmick, and if ever the JonBenet story reaches the stage, the present Baby June, Alexandra Kiesman, might be a front-runner. Liza Gennaro has respectfully and respectably restaged the dances. Between Miss Buckley and Lenny Wolpe there is genuine, mutual affection, not only the usual one-sided kind. But there the good news ends.
As if the Paper Mill had blown its funds on Follies, this Gypsy, in sets and costumes that seem underfinanced, also looks underimagined. Even the vaudeville placards are tackier than need be, and there is no real originality discernible anywhere. Not even in the direction by Mark Waldrop, who may have ill-advisedly encouraged Miss Buckley to aim in Act One for a certain fluttery, shabby-genteel quality rather than the steady, rising determination the part calls for. The electronics also present a problem: There is a somewhat tinny sound, and the orchestra sometimes overwhelms the singers.
Even so, what is good here outweighs the rest, and no one will return from this show empty-hearted. The splendid book, lyrics, and tunes continue to be compelling, and who can resist an ugly duckling becoming a swan, an overreaching parent learning a lesson, a mother and daughter at odds muddling through to understanding? And there is one performance already largely – and after some further polishing perhaps wholly – stupendous.