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Sweeney Todd

A Few Stout Individuals

By New York City
Polly Holliday and Donald Moffatin A Few Stout Individuals(Photo: Susan Johann)
Polly Holliday and Donald Moffat
in A Few Stout Individuals
(Photo: Susan Johann)
Some years ago, John Guare was named one of New York City's Living Landmarks. The phrase was chosen, it's likely, because those named are ubiquitous. There may be no one more visible than Guare, who is seen everywhere all the time, and among the places where he's spotted most often are bookstores. This makes sense: Guare seems to be unusually well read, and his plays are evidence of how much of the reading sticks in his mind. After a time, sentences, paragraphs and chapters apparently come together for him in unexpected, frequently delightful ways, and out bursts a new work.

A Few Stout Individuals is the latest fantasy he's spun from the disparate volumes he's perused at, say, the Strand Book Store and then carted home to stoke his roiling unconscious. The primary source this time is The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, published in 1885 with the help of Mark Twain--whose associates knew him, of course, as Samuel Clemens. It seems that Clemens concluded a business deal with Grant, who was dying slowly of throat cancer--he was a cigar smoker--and wasn't confident that he could finish a meaningful volume before he drew his last uncomfortable breath.

So, Guare, don't you know, has made a play out of the relationship between Clemens and Grant. The latter is identified in the cast list as USG and called "Lyss" by his nervous, ministering wife, Julia, who's identified in the cast list as Mrs. G. To furnish the action with even more characters taken from American and international history, Guare has introduced the Emperor of Japan and his Empress, as well as the celebrated Italian soprano Adelina Patti.

I don't know enough about Grant to corroborate the importance of the Japanese visitors, who appear in recurring hallucinations. Neither do I know how accurate it is that Grant was kept on a regimen of cannabis, morphine, and cocaine, which is the explanation Guare gives for the failing President's visions. But I expect that, just as Guare reports it, the Grants were a hit in Japan when they toured the country after leaving the White House. I suppose Grant also heard Adelina Patti, even if she didn't actually drop by the Grants' home just off Fifth Avenue at the insistence of the couple's stock-market speculator son Buck.

Anyway, Guare also has a few other things on his agenda. Known for a fascination with the practical and philosophical forces behind the nation's formulation, he appears to have felt that the impetus behind Grant's Civil War recollections was worth looking at closely. The personal memories of a great man struck him as crucial to the understanding of where we are now and how we got here. What a lovely idea this is, and how moving in its implications about the confluence of memory, literature, and political and military prowess.

So it's not a happy duty to report that Guare's effort, which could almost be categorized as a situation comedy in the tradition of Life With Father, is unsuccessful. As Guare presents the situation, Sam Clemens (William Sadler), having experienced so-so luck with his own writing, is feeling pressure to fill the many orders he's taken for the memoirs that the ailing and hallucinatory Lyss Grant (Donald Moffat) is possibly too infirm to get down on paper. Grant has jotted a few recollections, as Mrs. G. (Polly Holliday) emphasizes with a protective, tentative smile. Refusing, however, to buckle down to concentrated writing, Grant prefers replaying his triumphs in Japan. Why, the Japanese monarch actually touched him--a commoner--in an historical first.

While Clemens, the Empress, and an associate called Adam Badeau (Tom McGowan) importune the wheelchair-ridden Grant to "retrospect," other household members and the occasional outsider rush about in supporting attempts to make the man scribble. Among those coming and going and sometimes just hugging the walls are Grant sons Fred (T. J. Kenneally), an enthusiastic lad who's kept his own war records, and Buck (Mark Fish), who's lost $1 million of the family's money on Wall Street. Grant daughter Nell (Amy Hohn), married to an Englishman and wielding an English accent, bustles about haughtily; the family retainer Harrison (Charles Brown), a man of mixed motives, is also present. Every few minutes, a fellow named Gerhardt (Ümit Celebi) tries to come through the drawing room door but is rebuffed by Clemens. It's eventually revealed that he's a sculptor working on a bust of the General; he also wants to do the death mask.

Another scene from A Few Stout Individuals(Photo: Susan Johann)
Another scene from A Few Stout Individuals
(Photo: Susan Johann)
As Guare sets these quasi-comic, quasi-tragic figures in motion, they regularly spout the kind of offbeat utterances that the playwright tosses off masterfully. Every so often, one of them declaims something longish and sharpish, as the Japanese Emperor does in a play- opening imperial peroration and as Harrison does when telling why he's chosen to work in the Grant household. But informed chatter can't save a two-act play cluttered with repetitive action. Write the book, the characters insist; I won't, the General counters. And around and around they go. Some interruptions slipped in by Guare feel strained: The chirping of Adelina Patti (Cheryl Evans) has no kick, and Gerhardt's application of wet strips to Grant's face in preparation for the death mask is unfunny.

When the nose was knocked off Grant's bust and sculptor Gerhardt went into a tizzy, the woman behind me murmured, "This is a mess." There was no arguing her take. It's well-known that Guare writes fast; he confesses that he conjured Six Degrees of Separation in one day and the first act of Marco Polo Sings a Solo on a flight from London to New York. More power to him, when the speed with which he lines out plays filled with jolly juxtapositions doesn't show. But if a work gives the impression of being written in a hurry, whether or not it was, then ya got trouble. Even a moving denouement, which this piece has, is too little, too late.

Particularly puzzling about A Few Stout Individuals is the depiction of Sam Clemens. Aside from a crack or two--one about opera--he is surprisingly humorless. It may well be that there was a difference between the public Mark Twain and the private Sam Clemens and that the latter, who had lost a young son among other misfortunes, wasn't a laugh a minute. But if a playwright decides to make Clemens a character, he might consider including Twain-like cynicisms to keep him from becoming tedious.

Given the weight of the characters they've been assigned to portray and the insufficient ballast in the dramatic action, the cast does yeoman service under the direction of Michael Greif. Donald Moffat, asked to sit a good deal of the time, is a compelling Grant. Polly Holliday, checking in from Guare's superb Chaucer in Rome of last season, continues to be someone for whom conveying worry and warmth looks deceptively easy. William Sadler, in a one-note part, nonetheless makes that note resound, and he sure looks like Sam Clemens in the middle years. Among the others, T. J. Kenneally as the vivacious Fred, Charles Brown as the watchful and seemingly amenable Harrison, and James Yaegashi and Michi Barall as the paradoxically proud and deferential Emperor and Empress disport themselves admirably.

The actors look right in Gabriel Berry's costumes. Allen Moyer has designed a shabbily genteel room stripped of almost every adornment to pay off a $150,000 Grant debt to Cornelius Vanderbilt, and the set is well lit by Jim Vermeulen. David Van Tieghem (talk about someone who's everywhere at once!) has cooked up some evocative musical interludes.

As for Guare's title: In the play Clemens remarks, "What did Emerson say? What is history? No more than the biographies of a few stout individuals." My edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotation, however, attributes a quote to Emerson that goes: "There is properly no history, only biography." Elsewhere, Thomas Carlyle is cited as averring that "The history of the world is but the biography of great men." So either the Bartlett folks have overlooked the "stout individuals" comment or Guare has made it up. If that's the case, he's improved on the classic essayists Emerson and Carlyle with his pithy title, though he falls short of classic comedy with the play itself.


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