The works being revived at Studio’s Secondstage in Muzeeka: Three Early Works by John Guare are very early Guare. The very earliest, in fact. They represent the baby steps of a playwright who would be jumping through hoops a few years later in House of Blue Leaves (a savage farce centered on a papal visit to New York), and whose mature work would include both an epic 19th-century marathon (Lydie Breeze and Gardenia) and nuanced comic views of the rat race (Bosoms and Neglect and Six Degrees of Separation).
Here, however, he’s still learning to walk. The absurdist skits that open the evening—A Day for Surprises and The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year—premiered in 1966 at Manhattan’s Caffe Cino (a tiny coffeehouse generally regarded as the birthplace of the off-off-Broadway movement) and, no doubt, seemed right in sync with the then-popular Ionesco and Albee works they emulate. Designed for Caffe Cino’s eight-foot-square postage-stamp of a stage, they each present a couple and a crisis. In A Day for Surprises, two New York Public Library employees (Rosemary Regan and Ian LeValley) panic when they discover that one of the huge stone lions gracing the entryway has begun eating the staff. In The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year, a married nebbish (Larry Daly) and a timid young woman (Deb Gottesman) in Central Park shed their social inhibitions with dire results. That the first play’s characters are named A and B, and the second’s She and He, says worlds about the level of specificity Guare was seeking at this early stage in his career. As skits, they’re not unamusing, but today’s audiences are likely to see where they’re headed pretty much from their first moments. As a consequence, they seem awfully attenuated in performance despite flailing efforts by valiant actors to keep them interesting.
After intermission, Muzeeka, which marked Guare’s professional debut in 1968, some 18 months after the Caffe Cino workshops, reveals a more ambitious playwright who has decided to tackle all the big ’60s issues at once. His hero, Jack Argue (James Whalen), begins the play as a quizzical idealist and by the third of six scenes has developed a scheme to undermine the piped-in-music industry (which he blames for turning the U.S. into a nation of unthinking zombies). Almost immediately, however, he starts backsliding, and soon he’s cheating on his wife while she’s in labor, blaming all his problems on a “cortical overlay” that he says hems in his brain, and becoming epically disillusioned. Eventually, what’s left of his idealism is crushed by the weight of Vietnam.
The arc described by the life of this American Everyman would be a bit much for any play, and it’s far more than can be comfortably crammed into a 55-minute one- acter, but director Jerry Manning and his cast do their damnedest. Whalen, who was the barely monosyllabic husband in Woolly Mammoth’s The Food Chain, never shuts up here. And while his freneticism sometimes seems to turn his monologues into acting exercises, he’s fine when he’s interacting with Samantha Kearney’s dyspeptic hippie/prostitute, Steve Lebens’ gung-ho soldier, and Brook Butterworth’s devoted Mrs. Argue.
Technical aspects of the production are competent, which makes sense because they’re handled by experienced pros. (Secondstage’s mission of providing a forum for budding theater artists seems to have altered as Studio prepares to transform the classroom-size space into an auditorium that will match its main stage in seating capacity.) I could have done without the unifying device Manning dreamed up for the evening—a militaristic, androidlike stagehand (seriously overplayed by Christopher Marlow Roche) who changes title cards, supplies sound effects, officiously supervises set changes, and stands in for a door when necessary. But it’s easy to understand Manning’s urge to dress the evening up in some way. It’s very slight, even as it offers glimpses of the more substantial Guare to come.
When I say that Aeroplanos, Argentine playwright Carlos Gorostiza’s sentimental comedy in which two septuagenarians confront mortality with jokes and affection, is about flight, I don’t mean that in the sense suggested by the title. The play—currently being presented in Spanish with simultaneous English translation on headsets at Gala Hispanic Theater—does end with something about boarding an airplane, but the body of the work is more concerned with flights of fancy and an attempted flight from reality.
Paco (Mario Marcel), a gregarious, wisecracking former soccer player who was long ago sidelined by a knee injury that left him with a pronounced limp he refuses to acknowledge, is the one flying from reality. The most obvious evidence of this is the fact that the results of his medical test for a possibly life-threatening illness are sitting unopened in his doctor’s office. A cynic might also note that he flirts with his grandson’s girlfriends, but that probably falls more under the “flights of fancy” heading. His best buddy Cristo (Hugo Medrano), on the other hand, tends to be persnickety about accuracy and detail, possibly because he’s a retired postal worker. A sweet, slightly scattered man, he too is dealing with issues of flight. His daughter and her husband are leaving Argentina for Canada, and though they’re talking about taking him to an old folks’ home, he feels abandoned.
Gorostiza is credited in the program with having helped restore cachet to Argentinian dramaturgy since he “inadvertently” became a playwright while attempting to write a novel in 1949. His prolific career is studded with plays noted for their combination of homey domestic comedy and thematic significance. Aeroplanos—which, for all its geriatric Odd Couple comedy, deals in a fairly serious way with the loneliness and apprehension of its protagonists—is apparently typical of the playwright’s approach.
It also has a subtext that doesn’t seem to be being plumbed here, though it’s hard to say for sure when you’re listening to translated dialogue on headsets. For those who know about the ongoing exodus of Argentina’s middle class (close to 3 million of its 33.5 million citizens now live outside the country) and the plight of the nation’s aged pensioners (who’ve seen their monthly government checks whittled away by inflation until they hardly amount to cab fare), Cristo’s announcement about his daughter’s impending move will pack a substantial wallop. For those who don’t, Abel Lopez’s forthright, cheery staging won’t provide much help. Marcel and Medrano, both of whom are giving warm, cuddly performances, seem mostly to be going for sentiment, and the play’s conclusion, written in a way that seems to suggest death would be a vacation from life’s travails for these characters, is transmuted onstage into a straightforward let’s-fly-away epiphany. While that makes for a perfectly pleasant evening, it’s hard to escape the notion that shading and nuance are suffering a bit.