LANDSCAPE OF THE BODY
at American Blues Theater
A dark joy bursts out of John Guare's ugly/beautiful Landscape of the Body. This offbeat survivor's saga requires all of Guare's lilting ballads, all of the dialogue's lyrical outbursts, and all of the energy an ensemble can muster to outweigh its ferocious plot, packed with bleak twists and sudden deaths. Tabloid-lurid (there's even a severed head), Landscape maintains a kind of awe before the imponderability of pure chance. As its battered heroine declares, "The mystery is always greater than the solution." Like Guare's Six Degrees of Separation, it's a play about fragmented people trying to be understood any way they can--but the only ways they know don't work.
An urban nightmare in two acts, Landscape charts the lousy luck of Betty, a woman who leaves a miserable family in Maine and flees with her 16-year-old son Bert to New York. There they meet a lot of Big Apple worms, various vintage Guare eccentrics: Raulito, a Cuban transvestite travel agent and scam artist who exploits Betty, and Durwood Peach, a disturbed ex-Good Humor man who offers her crack-brained affection and the illusion of escape.
Sustaining Betty is the new family she's created to make up for the one she's lost. Betty relies on her sister Rosalie, a junkie/porn star with a heart so big it's an easy target, and Bert, a mixed-up teen who hangs out with scary, amoral companions (not unlike the miserable rich kids in Six Degrees) and who soon starts preying on gay johns on Christopher Street. Both meet sad and stupid fates, leaving Betty to salvage what security she can from, of all people, the cop who tried to indict her for murder.
Guare's catalog of calamities would be too much to take if the playwright didn't leaven the losses with quirky gallows humor and flights of lyricism. Raulito dies at the hands of an armed bank teller, for instance, when a sick joke goes lethally awry. Durwood's arrival, though it leads to nothing but more disappointment, triggers in Betty sun-burnished memories of her few good days in Maine. In the play's loveliest moment, she remembers when Rosalie told her that humans are really spirits lured to earth by hooks baited with temptations, enticements that forever keep us from flying away to safety.
The Defiant Theatre's Landscape, its second production since it moved here from Champaign, is a sturdy, no-frills effort; if it occasionally goes over the top, well, that's often a temptation with Guare. What matters is capturing the twisted poetry of his gorgeous script; in a play that's almost frustrating in its refusal to judge its characters, the outrages must play as naturally as the epiphanies.
Director Darren Critz wisely makes even the zany characters real enough that Guare's magic lines can do the rest. Though she doesn't seem as hardened as a real-life Betty would be, Barbara Wruck convincingly pulls off her character's switches from tough love to vulnerable hope. It's a performance rich with unforced decency, most touching in a rare glimpse of trust when Betty lets Bert (tenderly and roughly played by John Paul Torres) wash her hair. Warmly serving up Guare's charming songs, Danielle Brothers gives Rosalie streetwise gumption.
It's scary to imagine how this ensemble prepared to play Guare's scuzzy creatures. They form a unique rogues' gallery: Christopher Thometz's bad cop/good suitor; Christopher Johnson's selfish bicyclist, lethal bank teller, and naive dope king; Jennifer Gehr's grungy henchwoman; Brian Sheridan's Latin-lover impostor; and especially Will Schutz's happily unhinged Durwood Peach. Only Dominic Conti, playing a wired punk, goes out of control even for Guare: his head shakes more than LA; it's impossible to tell what he looks like until the curtain call.