The Acting Company, which has an enterprising past and comes up with offbeat new ideas, commissioned seven well-known younger playwrights to write a short, modern play each, based on an assigned Shakespeare sonnet. In performance, each sonnet is presented twice; even so, it is not easy to make the connection with the resulting playlets. Still, any way of getting the creative juices flowing is as good as another. Of the seven efforts, two are very fine, two partly successful, and three negligible or worse. There is a good deal of input from the savvy director, Mark Lamos, and from the improvising actors, a procedure that can prove a double-edged sword, unhappily mightier than the pen.
Love’s Fire, as the show is called, begins with Eric Bogosian’s Bitter Sauce. It is about a brawny working-class lover whom a kooky young woman springs on her fiancé on the eve of their wedding, and how the distraught fellow outsmarts his outsize rival. It is just funny enough. Ntozake Shange’s Hydraulics Phat Like Mean is, like its title and most of Miss Shange’s oeuvre, garbage not worth discussing. The talented Marsha Norman comes up with 140 (the number of her sonnet), a bisexual variant on Schnitzler’s Reigen that misses the boat both fore and aft. Tony Kushner’s hilarious Terminating (the full title is too long to quote) is about a lesbian shrink whom her clinging gay patient wants to bed rather than let go of, and about their respective lovers who, real or imagined, stand by their sides to make troubling comments.
William Finn’s Painting You is a miniature musical monologue addressed by a painter to his model and lover. It is too slight and short to allow us time to judge it good or bad. Wendy Wasserstein’s Waiting for Philip Glass concerns a party for the East Hampton smart set to which the guest of honor is late in arriving, and pokes mild fun at arrivistes of every stripe. A preliminary sketch for a longer play, it is much less funny than David Ives’s Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread (not part of Love’s Fire) but, with sexual ambiguities aplenty, has its droll moments. Finally, the longest piece, John Guare’s The General of Hot Desire, based on the two last sonnets and the medieval Legenda Aurea, deals with a group of students or student actors working on a group project – a play about the Creation and Sonnets 153 and 154 – and their researches, actings out, and other shenanigans. All delicious, though slightly overextended. I only wish Guare’s jabs at Helen Vendler’s monstrous book on the sonnets had been sharper. Adam Guettel has composed a charming song for this play.
Mark Lamos directed resourcefully amid Michael Yeargan’s amiably loony décor, to which Candice Donnelly’s costumes and Robert Wierzel’s lighting add spice. The nine young actors are all engaging, especially Erika Rolfsrud, Stephen DeRosa, and Daniel Pearce. Shakespeare, in any case, will survive this too.