For Matt, an American painter living in Rome, the good news is that he doesn’t have melanoma. The bad news is that he can never paint again; the special paints he mixes himself will cause cancer. The news in general is that he’s one of the characters at the center of John Guare’s fascinating, ambitious, but ultimately unfulfilling new play Chaucer In Rome.
Matt is a member of the American Academy in Rome, an institution dedicated to the advancement of higher learning and art; his girlfriend Sarah (Carrie Preston), a museum curator, and their friend Pete (Bruce Norris), an art historian, are also members. After the news is delivered to Matt in the first five minutes, Sarah and Peter spend most of the first half of the play trying to find a new medium for the inconsolable Matt to work in. It is only when Pete’s parents (Dick Latessa and Polly Holliday) show up looking for him that the lightbulb goes on and Pete comes up with an idea for a perfect new art form for Matt, hinging on the eighty million pilgrims coming to Rome for the Holy Year. It is an idea, however, that may end up destroying them all.
Chaucer In Rome is something of a sequel to Guare’s House Of Blue Leaves. Pete’s father, Ron, is one of that play’s central characters, and its action is referenced several times. It is not, however, at all necessary for the audience to be familiar with the earlier play. (In fact, it may help to be ignorant of the connection since the chronology doesn’t quite match up – the characters in Chaucer should all be younger than they’re played.)
Chaucer In Rome’s major problem is an overabundance of ambition. Guare attempts to cover far too much ground for a play that’s only an hour and forty minutes. Several plot threads are brought up and immediately forgotten; other ideas, while continued, aren’t developed fully enough. The central plot takes what seems like forever to get started. One imagines that earlier drafts were more fleshed out but cut for time; it might have been a wiser choice for Guare to split the piece into two acts.
This is not to say that Chaucer In Rome is a bad play – far from it. It’s not a play that lives completely for its plot; rather, it functions more on its ideas than its action. Guare seems to be commenting on the universality, or rather the thorough unimportance, of organized religion in regards to pilgrimage in the first half and end of the play. For much of the second half, when the main action is occurring, the play seems to exist as a parallel to House, with its trinity of crazy mother, desperate father, and rebellious son.
Dramatically, it is this section which is more interesting. Intellectually, however, it is the earlier segment which is more satisfying. Guare makes most of his points through the presence of Father Shapiro, an American priest given to adding Jewish inflections and Yiddish phrases to his speech, though he disappears after thirty minutes, only reappearing briefly at the end. Father Shapiro is not only a source of comedy but also the audience’s sole real window to the world surrounding the Academy, turn-of-the-millennium Rome, infested with religious pilgrims searching for solace from their troubles, absolution of their sins, and quick and easy passage into heaven.
The acting of the central five is all quite strong, highlighted by superb work from Norris as the closest thing that Chaucer has to a hero; Preston seems the weakest, but perhaps only because Sarah is the least showy part. Holliday is particularly heartbreaking in a lengthy confession of a monologue. Lee Wilkof steals his scenes routinely in a quartet of roles, including Father Shapiro. Tenney is perhaps too appealing at times in his portrayal of Matt, who is ultimately monstrously selfish, but this doesn’t interfere as much as it could with a less talented performer. (Incidentally, Tenney is the male lead on Kristin Chenoweth’s disastrous new sitcom; he’s far better here). Nicholas Martin’s direction keeps everything clipping along at a swift pace, aided by the attractive set, lighting, and costumes by Alexander Dodge, Donald Holder, and Michael Krass respectively.
Sometimes puzzling, sometimes saddening, sometimes riotously funny, Chaucer In Rome, though flawed, is a noble effort, one worthy of viewing. It presents a series of fascinating ideas and concepts and, even when it doesn’t follow up on them, it never ceases to be at least interesting.
Lincoln Center Theater