Guare play deals with U.S. Grant & memory

By FREDRICK M. WINSHIP  |  June 17, 2002 at 1:43 PM
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NEW YORK, June 17 (UPI) -- A new play by John Guare is always a theatrical event, and his latest drama dealing with Ulysses S. Grant and memory is a challenging mix of fact and fantasy that proves the Guare flair is still very much alive.

Guare approaches the Grant legend with humor and pathos in "A Few Stout Individuals," an Off-Broadway Signature Theater Company production focusing on the last year of the 18th president of the United State's life when he is dying of cancer and attempting to finish his memoir to make enough money to pay off his debts. The play was commissioned by the Signature Theater as part of its 10th anniversary season.

It opens with Grant, befogged in his wheelchair by a medicinal diet of cocaine, morphine, and brandy, hallucinating a visit from the Emperor and Empress of Japan, whom Grant and his wife had met on one of their world tours. Guare uses the Emperor throughout the play as a moral support to the old warrior who has come to doubt his prowess as a Civil War hero that is the basis of his international fame.

On hand to plague and confuse Grant is Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), who has engineered him into writing a two-volume memoir to be published by Clemens' new publishing firm, Adam Badeau, a self-important writer who is helping Grant with the book, Julia Dent Grant, his over-protective wife, two ne'er-do-well sons, and a social climbing daughter whose marriage to an English aristocrat has turned sour.

In addition there is Grant's black valet, a veteran of the 1864 Battle of Cold Harbor, an infamous defeat for the Federal Army that Grant has tried to block from his mind, a crazy sculptor who is determined to make Grant's death mask, and the operatic diva Adelina Patti. Add to this mixture the brief presence of railroad tycoon William Henry Vanderbilt, to whom Grant owes $150,000, in the confusing form of the Japanese Mikado.

Confusion, frenetic pace, and frantic stage business mark this serious effort on Guare's part to analyze how memory can be used positively or be exploited negatively in a clash of egos that marked Grant's terminal months in 1885. At 2-1/2 hours, the play is much too long to sustain this pace and considerable editing of repetitive material is indicated for future productions.

However, "A Few Stout Individuals" which gets its name from Ralph Waldo Emerson's assertion that history "is no more than biography of a few stout individuals," is an absorbing experience, rich in colorful personalities and historical references, and should stand with "The House of Green Leaves" and "Six Degrees of Separation" as one of Guare's most memorable plays. A powerful cast helps give this impression.

Donald Moffat as Grant, a man of conscience who doubts his own greatness, bring years of stage and television experience ("The Bourne Identity") to a role that requires the unusual talent of creating a whole, sympathetic character for a passive man who is obviously in a drug-induced dotage. Polly Holliday gives a remarkably vivid characterization of Julia Grant that can be both irritating and endearing.

William Sadler, whose appearance is remarkably like that of Clemens, gives an energetic but uneven accounting of Mark Twain, an author turned businessman with prescience enough to know that Grant's memoirs will sell like wild-fire (one out of three American families eventually bought the book). Character actor Tom McGowan makes the treacherous Badeau a tempestuous time bomb that gives the play a powerful sense of impending disaster.

Charles Brown is stalwart and impressive as the veteran who has sacrificed 20 years of his life to serve his old general, and James Yaegashi and Michi Barall are perfectly cast as the delightfully formal but lovably simple Japanese imperial couple. T.J. Kenneally and Mark Fish provide caricature portraits of Fred and Buck, the Grants' sons, and Amy Hohn makes a pertly fashionable but incomprehensible daughter Nell.

Michael Greif, the director of Broadway's "Rent," has again proved his ability to stage a dramatic work of conflicting moods with finesse. Allen Moyer's drawing room of the dilapidated Grant town house on Manhattan's East 66th Street exhibits all the attention to Victorian detail that won him recognition as a first class designer in "Dazzle" last season.

Jim Vermeulen's murky lighting enhances the effect of genteel poverty that afflicts the Grants, and Gabriel Berry's costumes are suitably shabby. Adding to the feeling of drapes-drawn isolation in the Grant drawing room is the distant and mysterious sound of an accompanying musical score by David Van Tieghem, an exotic note to a production that goes for the bizarre.

"A Few Stout Individuals" does much to redeem Guare's rather ordinary attempt at writing a book for a musical, the ill-fated "Sweet Smell of Success," which has just closed on Broadway after a run of less than three months. It is also a better play than his last outing, "Chaucer in Rome," a pointless, unfunny comedy about the debasement of art.

The playwright would appear to be back in his old stride, which was a gait to be envied.

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