Sunday, February 1, 2009

"The Landscape of the Body": ☼ ☼ ☼ Severed Head

Last night, after seeing a San Francisco Playhouse revival of John Guare's "The Landscape of the Body," which was written in New York in 1977, not exactly a high water mark period for optimism in The Big Apple, we came home and got out our reference books of voluminous theater criticism (it's called "Google") and read everything we could about how people reacted to this play when it first came out, and how that reaction has changed in the nearly 35 years since its premiere.

The answer is: not much has changed and neither has John Guare. Guare plays are famous for texts and subtexts and sub-subtexts and sometimes they pull together. Sometimes they don't. Director Bill English has a lot to contend with because he has to try and balance the real (woman run over by crazed bicyclist) with the surreal (same woman singing sappy torch songs afterward from Heaven). On the whole, he pulls it off.

The terrific Gabriel Marin plays two principal characters, Raulito, the Ricky-Ricardo-like small time huckster and Durwood Peach, the insane one-time ice cream man, and manages to give both over-the-top characters enough heart for you to actually believe they could be real.

But nobody answers the biggest issue of all: why did Betty (Susi Damilano) leave her comfortable life in Bangor, Maine, and try and assume the life of her sister Rosalie (Rana Kangas-Kent) in Greenwich Village? This is a fair question, since Rosalie is a hustler by day and porno actress by night. Without even a suggestion as to the reason for this switcheroo, the story flattens out. Damilano does an admirable job as Betty, who seems to be sent adrift by whichever wind blows through first, but is she, as the promo suggests, childlike? Not really. Is she just hollow inside? Maybe, but then what she does with her son Bert (Alexander Szotak) is so irresponsible that we have to work not to lose whatever empathy we may have had for her.

Oh, those creepy, creepy kids.

Like we said, this is one tough cookie of a plot. Guare's view of humanity, at least when the show was written, is a desperate one. Would Betty really look twice at the evil police captain (Andrew Hurteau) at the end? After all this, why the hell not?

RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ + Severed Head
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Landscape of the Body" Three Stars with a Severed Head. The three stars are because the show makes you think. Whether or not you will enjoy your night at the theater may depend on how you feel about a cute kid having his head cut off. No hearts and flowers here.
"The Landscape of the Body"
San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street, San Franciso
Tue.-Sun. through March 7

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