June 19, 2013

"3 Kinds of Exile" Wanders All Over the Place

Playwright John Guare has given us many enjoyable nights in the theater with such works as The House of Blue Leaves, Six Degrees of Separation and A Free Man of Color (click here to read my review of that).  

Alas, his latest work 3 Kinds of Exile, now running at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater through this weekend, doesn't come off anywhere near as well.

The best things about the show, which runs 1 hour and 45 long intermissionless minutes, are its intriguing title and its motivating concept. As the title announces, 3 Kinds of Exile tells the stories of a trio of displaced persons. 
All three are real-life Polish emigrés whom Guare knew or admired and he gives each his or her own playlet. Their experiences aren’t uninteresting but neither Guare nor director Neil Pepe has figured out how to make them theatrically engaging.
The bookends are Karel, the opening monologue in which a man recounts the story of a 12-year-old boy sent out of Poland to the supposed safety of England during World War II; and Funiage, the Brechtian fantasia inspired by the work of the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz that ends the evening. 
Karel is performed by the actor Martin Moran, who did his own one-man show earlier this spring and is comfortable holding a stage alone. But despite Moran’s congenial manner, my attention wandered. I’m told there’s a nice twist at the end of his tale but I missed it.
In Funiage, David Pittu plays Gombrowicz, a novelist and dramatist who found himself stranded in Argentina at the outbreak of the war in 1939 and never returned home. The always-game Pittu works hard but his efforts are overwhelmed by the hyperactive staging.

Pepe has filled this part of the production with all kinds of stage business. A nine-member ensemble sings, dances, does tricks with bowler hats and spouts surreal dialogue.  But it's all flash without any sustaining fire.

The centerpiece, and potentially most intriguing of the three plays, is Elzbieta Erased, a tribute to the Polish actress Elzbieta Czyzewska (say it Cha-zef-ska) who gave up a rising career in her homeland when she married the journalist David Halberstam in 1965 and moved to the U.S.
Their marriage didn’t last, her heavy accent made it difficult for Czyzewska to find acting jobs in this country and she died from esophageal cancer three years ago at just 72, still lamenting the hand fate had dealt her. 
Guare spoke at a memorial service for Czyzewska and says that he wrote Elzbieta Erased as a way to keep her from being forgotten (click here to watch a video in which he talks about his inspiration for the play).   

I once met Czyzewska at the home of a mutual friend and she told me her whole life’s story after less than 10 minutes of small talk. It is a compelling tale and it inspired the 1987 movie “Anna,” in which Sally Kirkland played the Czyzewska role.  But Guare doesn't do it justice here. 
For starters, Czyzewska isn’t actually a character in Elzbieta Erased. Instead, Guare and the Afro-Polish actor Omar Sangare, who appeared with her in a Polish production of Six Degrees of Separation, portray versions of themselves and, standing at podiums, tell anecdotes about their friend. 
Sangare is a charismatic guy but Guare, in his Off-Broadway acting debut, has little stage presence, less technique and a voice so weak that it fails to project even in the small space at the Linda Gross Theater.  
Still, my admiration for Guare continues despite this current disappointment. Few white playwrights create such textured roles for black actors as Guare has done in Six Degrees of Separation and A Freeman of Color and even here for Sangare.   

And that's not the only kind of reaching out Guare does.  He recently patiently mentored a trio of young playwrights on HBO’s “YoungArts MasterClass” series (click here to check it out). But when it comes to acting, he shouldn’t give up his day job. 

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