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Marco Polo Sings a Solo
Whether you want to sing the praises of a play you see during a Signature Theater season or find yourself less than one hundred per cent enthusiastic about it, you always come away grateful that this institution has managed to do what it set out to do: To devote an entire season to honoring a living American playwright and allowing him to be involved in the selection and staging of three works. Happily, artistic director James Houghton's endeavor seeded enough funding to provide a handsome and comfortable space on West Forty-Second Street.
This year the spotlight shines on John Guare, best known for offbeat dark comedies. Two of these, The House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees of Separation have been made into movies. The latter title has become part of our everyday lexicon of frequently used allusions. Like last year's honoree, Arthur Miller, Guare's oeuvre includes its share of lesser known and less successful plays, so it should come as no surprise that this retrospective starts off with a twenty-five year old critical flop, Marco Polo Sings a Solo.
It's a surrealistic comedy not about the usual dysfunctional family, but about a culturally dysfunctional world. The setting is an iceberg off the coast of Norway in 1999. Stony McBride (Bruce Norris) is making a movie about Marco Polo to create a vision of a twenty-first century that will erase the millenium's plethora of natural and man-made disasters. His movie making and personal entourage includes an assortment of visible and invisbly crippled searchers for a better tomorrow. His wife Diane (Judith Hawking), a once successful pianist, typifies those clinging to their cool havens (ergo, the iceberg!), unable to "fly solo" into the unknown -- trapped by "membrosis", the compulsive act of remembering. Tom Wintermouth (Jack Koenig ) embodies the species responsible for man-made chaos. He is hot for Diane but as coldly ambitious as his name suggest, even hoarding the cure for cancer to further his own goals. When he's called to step in after the president is incapacitated by a stroke and the vice president commits suicide, he needs little persuasion to ditch Diane.
Not having seen the original Marco Polo, I can't compare the Signature production to the 1973 and 1977 versions. Apparently neither can the director Mel. Shapiro who directed then as now. His introductory program note claims total amnesia though this seems his way of driving home the play's point about how "membrosis" keeps us afraid to "go into now" and to grow and change. It is also his way of explaining why he felt no compulsion to either repeat or re-interpret what he did originally which, translated to the audience, would call for looking upon this as a new play.
This suspension of mental links to the play's past history is not hard. Marco Polo Sings a Solo is after all new if only by virtue of its Spring 1999 time frame -- futuristic in 1973 but just around the calendar in the Fall of 1998. In our fast-moving world the chaos in Guare's 1999 hardly needs a quarter century gestation to become actuality. Our advanced computer technology has already brought us face-to-face with the potential chaos of the unresolved problem of dealing with the zeros of the new millennium. (As we've so far failed to deal with that problem, Diane McBride doesn't want to deal with all the nines in 1999 -- "so negative" as in "nein, nein, nein).
Unfortunately, Marco Polo Sings a Solo, is hardly a play to go down as an unfairly neglected, newly relevant dark comedy classic. To be sure, there's enough of Mr. Guare's inventiveness and wit at work so that it's worthier of a second look than his more recent (1993) Lincoln Center play, Four Baboons Adoring the Sun, would have been. E. David Cosier has provided a very serviceable iceberg of a set, unencumbered by walls so any of the characters could easily fly off on the solos of their yearnings. There are numerous highly amusing literary references with the ties to The Doll's House particularly apt: As Diane wavers about going off with Tom she is told "Ibsen would be happy his play has caused a woman to leave her husband"; later she decides that she can leave him "because he's successful." An allusion to Chekhov adds this gem about the famous sisters -- "Those dumb broads who didn't realize that they were in Moscow the whole time."
All in all, however, the two hours sandwiched between the prologue and epilogue delivered by the Buck Rogers space suited Stony are hobbled by too many unwieldy monologues and humor that at times leans so heavily on silliness that it overwhelms the more memorable ideas and interchanges.
The actors can't be faulted for doing their best. All play their absurdist roles to the hilt. Norris' questing Stony is endearingly bewildered throughout. Judith Hawking is terrific as the self-absorbed, edgy Dinah and Jack Koenig's overly ambitious politician could have stepped right out of an interview on the six o'clock news or with Larry King. Polly Holliday as the sexually and in every other way ambiguous adoptive mother delivers one of the most over-the-top and overlong monologues, as well as one of Guare's darkest bits of advice: "We were born for chaos. That's our natural state. Serenity we bust ass for." Chuck Cooper who proved himself a terrific singing villain in The Life, is somewhat wasted as a non-singing Messiah from outer space who has impregnated his bride-cum-chambermaid (Opal Alladin) with a "super being seed." Robert Morgan's Larry Rockwell, the only visibly disabled character, adds his own brand of cycnism. To further complicate matters there's Stony's disruptive adoptive father (Beeson Carroll) who, like mom is a member of the movie cast.
In scavenging through my notebook scribbles, there seems much evidence that this is the incisive black comedy John Guare intended. Factoring my notes into the experience of the whole two hours, however, I have a feeling this would read better than it plays (see link to our book store). Since plays are meant to be seen and heard, it's how a script plays that counts -- and judged by that yardstick this flight into outer space doesn't soar far enough from its earthbound beginnings.