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by Margaret Croyden

A John Guare Fantasy

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

"Chaucer in Rome"
Lincoln Center Theater
150 west 65 Street
Opened June 7, 2001
Reviewed June 10, 2001 by Margaret Croyden
The trouble with "Chaucer in Rome" by witty John Guare is that he is too witty. And too bizarre. The first act starts out as a satire on Rome during the millennium celebration and the audience is in for a lot of laughter and sheer cleverness. Guare has a good eye for the ridiculous, and uses not only the Pope but Italians and religious Catholics as fodder for his jokes. But by the second half (no intermission) the satire is virtually gone and a surreal aspect takes hold. The scene is the American Academy in Rome, a well endowed establishment for deserving scholars. There we meet a few of the inmates (who turn out to be rouges and manipulators), an obsessive, overwrought artist, his doting, silly girlfriend, and an egghead academic, as well as a hilarious half-Jewish priest, and a group of accident prone tourists who have come to Rome for absolution. (That part is extremely funny).

Soon the scholar's parents arrive. They have come to see their son and they are tricked into believing that he is not present. By some strange, crazy (unbelievable) manipulation, the scholar- son and his two artist friends tape the couples' forced confessions. The painter, who had been bemoaning the fate of his art, sells the tape for an actual TV show. And becomes rich and famous. One could assume that Guare is telling us that art has become nothing but personal and scandalous revelations on TV. Or something like that. Obscure metaphors will lead to banal conclusions, or no conclusions at all.

The zany couple dominate the action but they are the least interesting characters. Theirs is the gratuitous stereotypical marriage, an angry domineering husband, and a stupid wife with real or imagined guilt (who knows), who seems half demented about the "sins" in her life. O.K. She suffers from excessive guilt, so what is John Guare getting at? In the end, the trio that concocted this awful TV tape have split up, the aged couple's gory life is exposed, both of them die as a result, their son suffers remorse, and the play ends. The meaning of all this? Parents and children don't get along, artists are sell outs. Life is miserable; people suffer guilt and remorse; religion is crazy, the Italians are mad, and those that went to Rome during the Millennium got what they deserved. Car accidents.

The acting is unremarkable. The two leading players, the husband and wife (Polly Holliday and Dick Latessa) act like escapees from the borscht belt, or more like Jason Alexander's parents in the Jerry Seinfeld show. Certainly not like religious Catholics who go to confession. Maybe that's deliberate. And maybe that's supposed to be funny. Maybe--but its another example of satire overdone.

There is much shouting about art, sins, love, marriage, sex and religion, and many allusions to the great paintings in Rome. But nothing hangs together. John Guare is a clever fellow, and he is good at one-liners, and some are extremely amusing, but one liners do not a play make. Besides the mixture of the witty and the bizarre obscures the content of the play so that one finally becomes uninvolved. I would hope that next time round, he would strive less for the bizarre and the grotesque and give more thought to a straight story line. All the same John Guare is a funny guy, imaginative and exuberant. And capable of more. [Croyden]

Margret Croyden's most recent book is a memoir "In The Shadow of the Flame: Three Journeys" (Continuum). She is a frequent contributor to the pages of "The New York Times."

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