It's difficult to know just where to begin when discussing a play like John Guare's A Few Stout Individuals, which just opened at the Signature Theatre Company's Peter Norton Space. Funny? Captivating? One of the best plays to open on or off Broadway so far in 2002? All work, yet all are inadequate in describing this tremendously entertaining play.
Guare has fashioned a unique work based upon a major historical figure that is as unafraid of reimagining history as it is of respecting and criticizing it. The Ulysses S. Grant of A Few Stout Individuals remains the distinguished Civil War general and the less distinguished President, but has been given a strong degree of imagination and fancy, one who lives in the past and present simultaneously.
Grant (Donald Moffat), suffering from a number of maladies and facing financial destitution by the time the play starts in 1885, is only able to unlock the secrets of his past when reliving the past. The memories that could fill his memoirs and provide security for his family are trapped behind barricades he can reveal to almost no one in the real world. Slowly, the remembered (or perhaps imagined?) characters flood his everyday world, granting him the threads of life and consciousness that his doting wife (Polly Holliday) and excited publisher Samuel Clemens (William Sadler) need.
For Guare and his director Michael Grief, this represents what is perhaps the play's most valuable asset. They seamlessly blend the two sets of characters into one fully integrated collage, with a great deal of help from the show's thirteen highly talented performers. The most striking characterizations come from Holliday and Sadler, who negotiate their difficult roles without ever devolving into caricature, but Moffat's Grant is a strong center, anchoring all the other performances. From Cheryl Evans's unexpected opera diva to Charles Brown's resentful servant, there's simply not a weak one to be found.
Guare and Greif also derive considerable benefit from Allen Moyer's set, which so appropriately seems to exist at once in both reality and dreams, Gabriel Berry's handsome costumes, and Jim Vermuelen's lights. They provide atmosphere and color to spare, mixing in with Guare and Greif's vision that guides the piece from its surreal beginnings (the first words are uttered by the Japanese emperor, played with great flair by James Yaegashi) to the richly artistic near-tableau of the finale.
And yet, with Guare and Greif at the helm, there's nothing to suggest a single thing is out of place. The first act may seem grounded in impending death and loss, but the second act's dreamlike quality, at first appearing as a series of bizarre non-sequiturs is humorous, moving, and ultimately as real as it is fantastic. The first act promises a great amount, and the second act delivers even more, always testing how much reality and fantasy can be blurred, and never stopping the delicious surprises and heavy dramatic and comic payoffs until the final curtain is drawn.
For its sheer theatricality alone, this production would be dazzling, but it is made all the better by the commitment everyone has shown in making this as good a play as it is an experience. When provided with a work this rich and satisfying, who could ask for more? A Few Stout Individuals provides everything you need, and then some.
Photo by Susan Johann
Signature Theatre Company