Jon Tenney and Carrie Preston in Chaucer in Rome(Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
Jon Tenney and Carrie Preston in Chaucer in Rome
(Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
Just when I was thinking that John Guare might have been an excellent scenarist for Federico Fellini, a character in the playwright's astounding Chaucer in Rome said, "Ahhh, Fellini! You didn't go far enough."

So Guare, sly fellow that he is, had intended to plant the thought in my mind. And, yes, I got it that Chaucer in Rome is Guare's go at a script Fellini could have filmed. The pleasures of a Fellini celluloid extravaganza are here in abundance--Guareian send-ups of religious and art-world fervor whipped as if they were eggs and sugar into a tangy zabaglione.

The character who makes the Fellini crack is Matt (Jon Tenney), an artist headquartered at the American Academy in Rome. Matt has only just learned the paints he uses have caused squamous cell carcinoma, and that he must find another medium in which to express himself. He's fulminating while stuck in Holy Year traffic with girlfriend Sarah (Carrie Preston), best friend Pete (Bruce Norris), and a wired driver, Il Tassinaro (Antonio Edwards Suarez), who makes New York cabbies look like tea room hostesses.

Movie mavens will recall Marcello Mastroianni, as a stalled director, sitting in a bumper-to-bumper queue at the beginning of while a statue of Christ is being air-lifted over his head. Guare may or may not have been thinking of that image, but his play is an expansion of Fellini's take on the dizzying effect of speeded-up contemporary life on the practice of religion and art in an era when passion has so routinely become paroxysm.

Guare has taken up these topics before, in his own unique fashion. This playwright can take outrage and, while never losing sight of what he thinks, make it into a laff riot. He knocks the pretensions of certain art lovers, for instance, in Six Degrees of Separation. And in what is perhaps his most respected work, The House of Blue Leaves, he lashes out at the debilitating results of Catholicism on those attempting to follow its doctrines no matter how much they clash with reality.

In the latter work, Guare also tackles the subject of lunacy and domestic violence in a Queens household amid the furor of the Pope's 1966 visit to the City. With Chaucer in Rome, he turns the tables. This time he's raising the same issues against the backdrop of the maelstrom that was Rome in 2000, when an estimated 80,000 pilgrims visited the Pope. (The title of the play refers to how the 14th-century poet Chaucer might have handled his motley pilgrims had he been an artist like Matt trying to capture Holy Year hullabaloo for posterity.)

Guare is so obsessed with these familiar themes that he's crafted Chaucer in Rome as a sequel to The House of Blue Leaves. Although the play initially gives the impression that it's going to be Matt's story--his tantrums and flailings galvanize the opening scenes--the actual protagonist here is Pete, who turns out to be Peter Shaughnessy, son of Ron Shaughnessy, the troubled army deserter in Blue Leaves. Ron's father was Artie Shaughnessy, who killed his wife, Bananas, at the end of the earlier comic tragedy (Or was it a tragi-comedy?) Guare has clearly been compelled to speculate on how that show of private madness carried on amidst public madness affected family relations in the ensuing decade, and it's possible that a full appreciation of the later opus depends on some familiarity with the earlier one.

The way the narrative baton passes from Matt to Pete in Chaucer in Rome goes like this: Hoping to jolly Matt out of his post-cancer-diagnosis funk, and in reaction to Matt's scathing recalcitrance, Pete wagers that he can come up with a new approach to Matt's work. With Sarah encouraging him in part because she hopes to marry Matt (but only after he regains his equilibrium), Pete makes a couple of hundred unacceptable suggestions. He finally hits on the seemingly right one when he dares Matt to videotape the proliferating pilgrims at their confessions; he does this videotaping while Matt and Sarah pretend to be an accommodating priest and nun, therby luring the unsuspecting folks into camera range.

The catch--and it's a horrific one--is that the first pilgrims ensnared in the arty trap are Pete's parents, Ron and Dolo Shaughnessy (Dick Latessa and Polly Holliday), who've come to Rome to find out why they haven't heard from their son for some time. Two nervous wrecks trying to put a good face on their grievances but allowing the truth to emerge in the phony, makeshift confessional over which Matt presides, Dolo and Ron unveil their secrets. Dolo has convinced herself she is an unsalvageable sinner because she's been receiving mysterious letters accusing her of just that; Ron fears that, as his father's son, he is destined to murder his wife.

And it's all on videotape, which Matt and Sarah have no qualms about as they turn the raw material into potentially destructive works of art. They aren't even remorseful when some of Ron and Dolo's worst presentiments have come to pass. Pete finds himself in the position of having contrived his parents' undoing, continuing the chain in which the sins of the fathers are visited on the sons and vice versa.

Chaucer in Rome only works if its crucial coincidences--the Shaughnessys arriving just in time to become Matt's and Pete's dupes and later catching on television the video in which they're featured--can be accepted. That's where Guare shines, creating an anarchically comic environment in which anything seems possible and only the mundane seems improbable. He's a master at organizing theatrical chaos. At one point, while Matt, Sarah and the Pete occupy the foreground, a group of tourists who've been maimed in a bus collision invade the stage like spiders, begging to be allowed to visit four of the seven basilicas that, once entered during Holy Year, offer full absolution.

Guare also keeps the funny lines coming--out of Matt's mouth, in particular. When Pete and Sarah gang up to get him to try something new, he queries, "What's next from you two pals? Are you going to whip out a bolt of black velvet? Matt, do the Last Supper with the Kennedys and Martin Luther King and Elvis and Marilyn as apostles." A second great cause of thigh-slapping is Father Shapiro (Lee Wilkof), an American priest of mixed parentage who seems to think that his job as an agent of the Lord is to extract his 15 percent in the most cheerfully efficient manner possible. "It is so refreshing to meet people who don't give a rat's ass about the Holy Year," Father Shapiro confides.

Chaucer in Rome is imperfect. But perfection isn't a top priority for Guare, who is on record as saying that he never goes back to a play once it bows. The playwright's extensive artistic reach practically guarantees that what he gathers will spill over untidily. When, for example, Ron and Dolo hurtle onto the stage, it's as if they pull the plug on the play's high comedy and bring it into sitcom territory. It's only when the couple bare their flagellated souls that Chaucer in Rome gets back on its fast and furious track.

Polly Holliday and Dick Latessa in Chaucer in Rome(Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
Polly Holliday and Dick Latessa in Chaucer in Rome
(Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
Nicholas Martin is in charge of directing the players so that Guare's big and often messy picture comes into focus. It's doubtful anyone else could have done the job better. The handsome and buff Tenney gives Matt a very short fuse, performing with extreme unctuousness. Norris, slim and seemingly always in danger of tripping over his own feet, covers all aspects of Pete's blighted and quivering humanity. Preston, blonde and Peck & Peck-ish, nimbly walks the line between caring and careless. Latessa and Holliday get so far into their anxious-parent/agitated-spouse characters that a search party might have to be sent in to retrieve them. (Last year, Holliday was a Venice tourist in Martin's Lincoln Center revival of The Time of the Cuckoo. Doesn't the lady ever get to unpack her bags? What's next on her itinerary? Naples?)

Lee Wilkof threatens to run away with the show. Grabbing the ball Guare has thrown in the shape of Father Shapiro, the chubby actor runs with it clear into the next county. Gleeful chutzpah has rarely had such an adroit embodiment. Wilkof also gets plenty of mileage out of the roles of a dottore who only speaks Italian and a gabby talk show host. The sniveling, groveling pilgrims are played by Umit Celebi, Susan Finch, Mark Fish, Nancy McDonial, Tim McGeever, and the above-mentioned Suarez with the right blend of pathos and degradation.

As is the norm at Lincoln Center, the physical production is impeccable. In addition to that stunning carpet, Dodge has built an Academy facade that has probably already prompted grant aspirants to send in applications. (Dramatist Guare is married to Adele Chatfield-Taylor, Academy president, and thus has spent enough time in Rome to learn much about its potential and latent craziness.) Michael Krass' costumes, Donald Holder's lighting, and Mark Bennet's original music are all fine.

Since the early '90s when Tony Kushner bit off much more than he could chew but still chewed a lot of it well in Millennium Approaches and Perestroika (umbrella title: Angels in America), theatergoers have been wondering where the next overly-ambitious, completely commanding swipe of a play would turn up. Chaucer in Rome provides the answer: right here. If some enterprising outfit ever decides to run The House of Blue Leaves and Chaucer in Rome in repertory, the importance of Guare's accomplishment will be indisputably evident.

A few decades back, when Guare was nearing 40, a Village Voice commentator called him America's oldest promising playwright. He has now superbly fulfilled that promise.