LANDSCAPE OF THE BODY
Try to summarize John Guare's Landscape of the Body and you end up with some kind of fatalist cliche.
Ya never know.
Or, as a Nigerian pulp novel somebody once lent me put it, "Life is tough and sometimes funny."
That doesn't make it a bad play. To the contrary, Landscape's rather marvelous, all in all. Partly because there's some value in knowing ya never know. And partly because Guare makes such a wild poetry of his fatalism. This show's tough and often very funny.
Landscape tells the horrendous story of Betty Yearn from Bangor, Maine, who travels down to Greenwich Village with her teenage son Bert. She's on a mission. She means to bring her runaway sister, Rosalie, back home. But no sooner does Betty make contact than Rosalie--go figure--gets run over and killed by a guy on a Raleigh ten-speed.
Betty and Bert never do go back to Bangor. Instead, the formerly innocent Betty starts living Rosalie's wild life: working for a fly-by-night travel agency; messing with Raulito, the Cuban emigre who runs the agency and wears gold lame evening gowns; making the occasional porn loop. Bert goes into business with a neighbor boy, Donny, their idea being to hang out on street corners pickin' up the gay men and boppin' 'em on the head in order to take their valuables.
One thing leads to another and Bert turns up murdered, his head stove in and then lopped off. Shit happens.
It was Donny did it. But Betty never finds that out. Nor does Captain Marvin Holahan, the detective assigned to investigate the case. The only reason we know is that the ghost of Rosalie shows up and guides us through the murder. To be really well informed in this world--Guare's and ours--you've got to be dead. Or in the audience. The people in the middle just never know.
Landscape of the Body is about the terror of not knowing. Which is identical to the terror of living. Nobody's got the slightest notion what comes next or where their actions will lead. Sometimes the effect is devastating, as when poor Bert slips away into chaos. Sometimes it's sweet and weird, as when a mad ice cream vendor named Durwood Peach comes to claim Betty for his own. Mostly it's both. Tough and funny. Every gift has its unexpected dark side, every joke its unlooked-for tragedy.
I want to say the situation's absurd, but it's not. There's a calm and a grandeur and a vastness to it. A poetry. Things truly do make sense. They just don't make sense to those involved. I have a flip book called Bodyscape, consisting of a series of charcoal figure drawings by Ruth Hayes: look at the drawings individually and they show a nice abstract play of forms; flip through and they disclose a reclining nude. A landscape of a body, as it were. Guare's script works pretty much the way that flip book does.
And so does the new Goodman Theatre production of it, directed by Robert Falls. At first I considered George Tsypin's sets a gorgeous case of overkill. A Brobdingnagian response to a really very intimate play--about commensurate with, if a good deal more beautiful than, the U.S. invasion of Grenada. Huge ships cruised across the proscenium, filling it completely. An imposing set of loading dock doors enclosed a simple office. An apartment interior was shown from not one but two perspectives. People ran around, dwarfed by the show's mechanics. And the only justification I could see was that this was the Goodman, and you can do big-budget stuff at the Goodman.
But now I've thought it over and I've decided that Tsypin's scale is appropriate, precisely because it dwarfs its inhabitants. The sense of helplessness, of vastness, of an existential landscape that can only be taken in a frame or two at a time, becomes visually powerful when the cast is crawling all over great scaffolds or being taken away on titanic vessels or pounding on monumental doors.
Barbara E. Robertson, who does the pounding, has all the technical agility she needs for the changes that overtake Betty. More, she's got the heart and the wit. It's at once peculiar and affecting to see her sitting in Captain Holahan's office, looking just a little wrong in her slutty dress with the decolletage down to her pupik.
I don't know why, but I was surprised at how plain funny Gary Cole is as Holahan. I guess it just goes to show that if you want to find out what an actor can really do, put him in Groucho glasses. Likewise, if you want to find out what Peggy Roeder can do, put her in spandex and have her play Betty's brassy, tune-belting sister, Rosalie.
The rest of the cast is also fairly amazing. Ray Bradford pulls us entirely into his fantasy as Raulito--though it was a little disconcerting to see him onstage in his lame gown one night and participating in a WTTW fund drive on television the next. Tom Towles swims through a series of small, sharp caricatures. Chelcie Ross gets the single most exquisite speech of the show as a consequence of playing Durwood Peach--and gives it a quiet, obsessed lyricism.
The actors in kids' roles do well, on the whole, but Anthony Rapp's Bert is special. He has an innocence that's simultaneously heartbreaking, amoral, and utterly lost. At the start of act two, Rapp sings a cornball/lovely song about a child's sense of possibility; listening to his clear voice and feeling the ugly ironies crowd in around him, I thought of yet another short slogan that summarizes Landscape of the Body: the Buddha's "Life is suffering."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Osgood.