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So Bad It Hurts

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Landscape of the Body

Eclipse Theatre Company

at the Athenaeum Theatre

The second-worst thing about a bad production of a good play--after having to sit through it--is the way its badness absorbs your attention to the exclusion of all else. Is Hamlet mad? Can't worry about that as long as Gertrude keeps dropping lines and Laertes sticks himself with his own sword. Badness is the only subject of a bad production. Never mind chewing the scenery--it eats the play and our consciousness together.

Now a failed production is an entirely different matter. You can learn more from some failed productions than you can from any number of good ones. Take Hamlet, of which it's possible to argue that all productions are failed since the play is too vast to be contained by one director's interpretation. I remember seeing a version in which all the elements conspired to make Claudius far more vivid than the protagonist. With the murderous usurper brought so far to the front I suddenly saw that, in a sense, Hamlet is the play Macbeth would have been had Macbeth been written from the point of view of Duncan's son Malcolm (and, of course, had Malcolm gone to college). To borrow a phrase from Eric Burdon, this really blew my mind. And I've regarded that failed production as one of my favorites--of any kind--ever since.

The new Eclipse Theatre Company production of John Guare's Landscape of the Body is not failed, unfortunately. It's bad.

In what ways is it bad? Many. The most obvious bad thing is the set, which is actually kind of horrid. The downstage area is dominated by two movable units featuring a swirly blue eye-of-god motif and big, undisguised metal hasps that are supposed to keep the units in place but mostly just hang loose; the back wall is decorated with a mural that appears to depict the Martian invasion from H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds. (Since there's no Martian invasion in Landscape of the Body, it occurred to me that the show was being performed on a set meant for The War of the Worlds. But John Wilson receives a credit for having designed the Landscape set.)

Brian Sutow and Sean Ross Johnson play a pair of teenage criminals in a manner that leaves their pathology entirely unexplored. Anish Jethmalani plays a Cuban with an accent that suggests southern Asia. Lots of people flubbed lines (indeed, whole characters) on opening night. And though she's endearing as the complex Betty Yearn, Kerry Cox comes nowhere near engaging the character's profound paradoxes. The one truly successful performance is given by Gary Simmers, whose police captain, Marvin Holahan, dances an almost invisible line between noir and antinoir, hard-boiled sincerity and parody.

But Simmers can't make the 180 minutes of the show worthwhile. The entire production seems listless--flat-footed, lost, and vague. It not only lacks competence but purpose, as if it climbed onstage only to find it had nothing much--or perhaps more to the point, nothing cogent--to say.

Which is strange and sad. Strange because the director, Steve Scott, is a well-established, well-reputed artist who might have been expected to do better. Sad because Landscape of the Body is such an incredibly rich play. Though not the masterpiece that Guare's Six Degrees of Separation is, it's still wildly accomplished and inventive: a sweet absurdist comedy about sick sex, thrill killing, insanity, social degradation, broken families, and hope. Betty Yearn's journey through the landscapes of New York and her own frightfully disengaged psyche is a Divine Comedy with trick mirrors. As the late Newsweek theater critic Jack Kroll said, "There's more invention, more feeling in Landscape than in any two plays by most writers." That Eclipse could make something so inert, so inadequate, from material like this is a kind of perverse triumph. But not one I'd like to see repeated.

I guess you could say I'm disappointed. The last time I saw this play, at the Goodman Theatre in 1987, my eldest son was just three years old and I focused on the adult characters. Now my youngest is 14--the same age as Guare's sociopathic juvenile delinquents. I think that if this production hadn't been so bad I would have been most interested in the question of how these kids became the good-natured atrocities they are. But badness is the only subject of a bad production, so we don't get to contemplate that.

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