With his new play that just opened at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater, 3 Kinds of Exile, John Guare is proving twice over that he should not give up his day job.
The more important of the pair of ways this is relevant with regards to Neil Pepe's production is that this is, by and large, an involving look at how the lines between political and personal alienation may frequently blur. Guare has pulled from recent world events a trio of tales about Eastern Europeans displaced by the shifting grounds in their own countries, and fashioned them into an intensely theatrical outing that never lets you forget everything that was at stake for them, and is at stake for us, every day.
This is most explicit in the opener, in which a man (Martin Moran) relays a story told to him by a friend. In the early 1950s, this man in his late 20s developed a painful red rash that grew to cover every part of his body except for his face and hands — and nothing would cure it. Scarier still was that this was the second defining moment in the friend's life: When he escaped his homeland by train in 1939 at age 12, he shared a car with an abrasive boy charged with the anger and self-reliance that are always part and parcel of survival.
How these two experiences relate is the meat of the monologue, which Moran effectively declares (and Pepe stages) with a minimum of emotional filigree; none is needed, and the economy is refreshing. (The work is titled "Karel," and is reportedly based on the Czech filmmaker Karel Reisz, though neither his name nor specific biographical details are mentioned.) If Guare becomes too obvious hammering home his themes in the final moments, the buildup to it is a taut and surprising one that uses — but does abuse — symbolism to pursue his greater point.
Guare and Pepe expand this theme still further — almost to the snapping point, in fact — in the collection's closing chapter. "Funiage" is based on The Marriage, Trans-Atlantyk, and other works by the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, who fled to Argentina to wait out World War II. And it explodes the writer's absurdist style in a series of barely linked skits covering subjects from his upbringing to his travels to a wedding, and so on, investigating the man's life and focusing on his identity as a citizen no single collection of borders could hold.
David Pittu embodies Witold with magnetic fervor, blending his brash experimentalism with a fear of the unknown that centers his dark, uncertain surroundings. He projects love for the cautious freedom that Witold enjoys during his exploits, but never releases the cynical (if too believable) view that it could all come crashing down just as easily as it's been created. Takeshi Kata's set, a ghoulish junkyard crossed with a rickety burlesque house, unites with Susan Hilferty's costumes and Donald Holder's lights to underline Witold's existence as one equally full of terror and promise.
Pepe has infused "Funiage" (a portmanteau of "funeral" and "marriage" — wholly appropriate) with a strong Threepenny Opera vibe that transforms Witold's escapades into those of an on-again-off-again musical-comedy picaresque. (The music is by Adding Machine composer Josh Schmidt, writing with an appropriately pungent, zombified Mid-Atlantic voice.) It can be exhausting to watch, and the nine-person cast is usually more busy than bustling, but it's a riveting evocation of one artist's unique vision.
So, too, is the remaining piece, "Elzbieta Erased." Polish actress Elzbieta Czyzewska gave up her shooting-star career in Poland to marry New York Times Warsaw correspondent David Halberstam, but ended up sacrificing a lot more. Though she worked in America, she never found the same kind of success, and lost many opportunities that could have propelled her to new prominence. Subsequently, in her native land her work was ignored or forgotten, and her return to the stage in Poland (in a revival of Six Degrees of Separation, no less) only reinforced that her ignominious exit permanently closed some doors that might have been better left open.
A slowly encroaching dread is the predominant feeling, and it's 3 Kinds of Exile at its most powerful and surprising. This underpinning is crucial, because it's what allows "Elzbieta Erased" to survive the evening's worst presentation. It's anchored by Pepe's static staging, which is limited to a few projections and a pair of podiums behind which two performers confine most of their remarks.
In one way, both are ideally chosen because they filled vital roles in Elzbieta's later life. Omar Sangare, born of a Polish mother and a Malian father, actually starred opposite her in Six Degrees of Separation. He's game, no doubt, but his energy is flat and his deeply accented English makes many of Guare's more intricate lines challenging to interpret from the audience. He also doesn't seem to grasp the oral history nature of the storytelling that might help make it as engaging as the writing.
He's not alone. You've probably guessed by now that Guare is Sangare's partner. He crossed paths with Elzbieta at a couple of different points during her American "tour," and would be a natural inclusion here if he were at all convincing. But whether he plays himself as an expert witness or restates the words of others, his faint, toneless bark of a delivery is utterly divorced from the words' content, letting this potentially enveloping saga become more off-putting than it has any right to be.
There's no good solution to this dilemma, though I might not mind scuttling Guare's and Sangare's onstage verisimilitude in favor of increased watchability. But if you suspect that 3 Kinds of Exile has not yet found its ideal form on its feet, what's here is so rich that it deserves as many opportunities as possible to prove that, like the people it documents, it can be considerably more than it appears.
3 Kinds of Exile