Elizabeth Marvel inLydie Breeze
Elizabeth Marvel in
Lydie Breeze
Some years ago, John Guare was included in the first group of New Yorkers declared "Living Landmarks." People who know him or know about him immediately understand why: Aside from having put himself on the dramatic literature map as an outstanding contemporary playwright, he is--perhaps more pertinently--a local boy who loves the city so much he's forever spotted strolling around it.

Compulsively peripatetic, Guare is therefore ubiquitous, and among the places he is habitually found are bookstores. The author has often trumpeted his high regard for classic literature. So it makes sense that perhaps the most terrifying moment in Lydie Breeze, which he's now revised and revived at The New York Theatre Workshop, occurs when a distraught man slices up his masterwork before it can be published.

Lydie Breeze seems to be the work Guare has chosen to toil over until it's worthy of ascension to whatever writers' pantheon he thinks exists. He began fussing over the piece in 1982; it's set in Nantucket, where he once co-founded a theater company. Apparently, the idea was to take a great theme and flesh it out with figures who endure tribulations over an extended period of time--as in the Oresteia of Aeschylus--and thereby create a substantial saga. What has emerged over the intervening years is a look at the members of a late 19th-century commune who watch the utopia on which they've pinned their hopes painfully disintegrate at the same time that the country on the whole is experiencing major throes.

The cosmic theme, then, is the founding (and foundering) of the American Dream. It's embedded in the microcosmic activities of four ambitious but flawed communards. They are the Civil War veterans Joshua Hickman, Dan Grady, and Amos Mason, and Lydie Breeze, the woman who nursed them back to health after they were wounded in battle. Since Guare wrote the first installment, three plays have been mounted and shuffled: Lydie Breeze, Gardenia and Women and Water. Currently on view is a two-part reworking of the project; the umbrella title Lydie Breeze now covers halves titled Bulfinch's Mythology and The Sacredness of the Next Task.

The first begins in 1875 with the jubilant Lydie on a Nantucket beach, reading from Bulfinch. She is interrupted by Joshua, whom she has married and who has just received a rejection letter from Atlantic Monthly editor William Dean Howells. It's about then that Walt Whitman's theory that "a vast similitude interlocks all" is invoked. (It's a theory to which Guare has long subscribed, and which he distilled into the catch phrase "six degrees of separation"). Within minutes the subdued Lydie and the chagrined Joshua are encountered first by Amos Mason, whose illiteracy they have been hoping to correct, and then by Dan Grady, who works as a train conductor and has come home after a shift with a bag of cash stolen from two men who've shot each other.

That the illegally obtained cash both saves the commune from going under and taints its future isn't immediately apparent to the characters, nor is the damage inherent in Lydie's being allied romantically with both Joshua and Dan. But in the play's second act, which takes place in 1884, the beset quartet has been awakened to the tragedy in its misguided utopianism. Joshua is in prison, having murdered Dan in an initially mysterious dispute. But he seems perfectly happy as he educates his fellow inmates, and he has written a book that has found its way to Howells--a discourse on how utopianism can be turned inside out. He's has titled the work Aipotu, and Howells likes it. Whether Joshua should allow his critical memoir to be published, since it includes some unpleasant revelations about the involved parties, becomes an issue when Amos (now a stuffy lawyer) and Lydie (gaunt and gravelly as the result of a disease she has contracted) arrive to talk him out of it. The play ends darkly as Joshua decides not to send the book out into the world, and shreds what he's written.

The second half of Lydie Breeze jumps to 1895, by which time Lydie has hanged herself, leaving behind two daughters: Lydie Breeze Hickman--whose devotion to her mother's memory is tantamount to derangement--and Gussie Hickman--who, calling herself Amos Mason's "secretary," has become his mistress. While on a political junket with presidential aspirant Mason and his supporter William Randolph Hearst, Gussie has returned to Nantucket to seek reconciliation with her tormented father. Jeremiah Grady, Dan's son, has also come back from England where he's an actor known for portraying the monster in a long-running stage adaptation of Frankenstein. His impulse is to revenge his father by killing Joshua.


Affecting (and infecting) some of the characters present and absent is a case of syphilis; Lydie caught it from Dan and passed it on to Jeremiah, who passed it along to Beaty, the servant entrusted for years with the Hickman girls' rearing. (In sending around this affliction, Guare gives a darker example of the "six-degrees-of-separation" hypothesis.) Over the course of a few days, Beaty and Jeremiah do away with themselves while, contending with one another's demons, Joshua, Gussie and young Lydie find solace--the latter with Jude Emerson, a Christian Scientist meaningfully devoted to sheltering and banding birds She's last seen reading (of course!) the words "on the beach," which symbolically brings her full circle to her mother's first appearance in the two-part play. It's Guare pointing out that hope springs eternal.

As his characters let their clouded ambitions ensnare them, and eventually succumb to their situations or disentangle themselves, Guare's intentions are obvious. Throughout Lydie Breeze, the players reiterate the need to dream, the need to celebrate humanity: "The human spirit, that's the real show," one of them exclaims. But their best wishes are confounded by their willfulness, their orneriness, their pettiness, their shortsightedness, their compromised human nature. The case of traveling syphilis is a metaphor for how inadvertently and casually they taint each another--and, of course, the body politic for which they are stand-ins. "We all carelessly ruined each other's lives," Joshua says, echoing what Nick Carroway observes in The Great Gatsby about another generation of promising, lost young people.

But with this new Lydie Breeze configuration, has Guare finished the work that will once and for all (as he sees it) establish his importance? He certainly sends enough signals about his grand goal. The allusions to Aeschylus, to O'Neill, to Ibsen (Ghosts in particular), to Bulfinch and mythology ("You were my mythology," Joshua tells Lydie), are deliberate. Guare is not just cribbing from the big boys, he's invoking them to indicate that he's playing on their field and by their rules. Yet, for all his prodigious gifts, he doesn't quite succeed at blending his influences into something that extends them, transcends them. For instance, the use of syphilis as a metaphor doesn't register as an homage to Ibsen, but as a pale copy of that great playwright. The Oresteia-like journey of the Lydie Breeze characters, in which the sins of the parents are visited on the children until reconciliation and redemption is attained, doesn't seem so much to follow the natural order of things as it seems a formula forced to an unearned resolution.

Indeed, in his long scramble to get it right, Guare--who has always eschewed naturalism in favor of the fantastical contained in the natural--makes some gaffes. The pivotal incident of Dan's murder in a brawl over the young Jeremiah and a disputed bottle of Moxie is never seen; it's reported, like a number of other incidents in the play. As the Lydie Breeze scenes accumulate, it feels as if crucial shards of information have been left out. Were they once included, then misplaced in the course of compulsive rearranging? Lydie Breeze herself is the guiding force throughout the piece (otherwise, why would Guare name the play after her), but is enough known about her? As the first part begins, she seems a cheerful enough young woman driven more by whim than conviction. Perhaps the key to her magnetic powers is found in Women and Water, once part of the series but now excised for all intents and purposes.

If Guare has yet to make his point about Lydie Breeze, he isn't being let down by Itamar Kubovy's production, which unfolds with gathering intensity on Neil Patel's stark, all-purpose set--a sloping floor of bleached slats, an upstage staircase and a door. The actors do well, with the exception of Alexandra Oliver, who hasn't the grit and command to make Gussie the marijuana-smoking vulgarian she means to be taken for. Elizabeth Marvel gets both facets of Lydie, the hopeful and the hopeless, while Bill Camp carefully plumbs Joshua's fathomless misgivings about himself. As Jeremiah Grady, Jefferson Mays is especially amusing when, pulling Joshua's leg during their combative meeting, he suddenly launches into the melodramatic thesping that evidently made his stint as Frankenstein's monster such a hit.

Speaking of amusement: Guare is cherished for his eccentric humor. Like Tom Stoppard, he is known for effortlessly transmuting his erudition into high-flown, lowdown humor. It spreads like kudzu in his best-known plays, The House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees of Separation. But here, there are precious few jokes. It's as if Guare has no time for comedy in his quest for greatness. The irony is that, in striving for importance, he seems less important.