How do you challenge yourself in creating new work when you've been a fixture in the New York theater scene for nearly half a century? John Guare has opted to act. The award-winning author of plays like Six Degrees of Separation and The House of Blue Leaves is now making his Off-Broadway acting debut in 3 Kinds of Exile, Guare's surprising and insightful new play, currently making its world premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company.
A trio of seemingly unrelated acts, 3 Kinds of Exile examines the immigrant experience for three eastern European expatriates from the last century.
Part one, "Karel," is a monologue delivered by Martin Moran about a man suffering from a peculiar rash that is connected to his earliest fears of arriving in England at the outset of World War II. This part serves as an appetizer for the larger piece, putting us in the mind-set to think about the psychological ramifications of living one's life as a migrant. Moran skillfully warms up the audience and draws us into the play — no easy task when flying solo.
Part two, "Elzbieta Erased," features Guare and Polish actor Omar Sangare telling the story of their mutual friend Elzbieta Czyzewska. The most famous actress in Poland, Czyzewska married New York Times correspondent David Halberstam in 1965. She chose to leave her homeland for New York City two years later when he was expelled from Poland for writing articles critical of that country's communist regime. What followed was a lifetime of bad luck in the big city. And then she died.
Equal parts narration and dramatization, "Elzbieta Erased" could have easily become tedious and self-involved. (Plays about actors and playwrights are rarely as interesting as those about other subjects.) Guare's presence onstage helps the piece avoid this fate: It has the effect of turning this second part into a really good cocktail-party story. A touching tribute to an undersung figure in Guare's life, I doubt it would work as well with two other actors who did not have such personal connections to the subject.
The third part, "Funiage," is by far the most theatrical of the three. It concerns Polish author Witold Gombrowicz (David Pittu) and is inspired by his works The Marriage and Trans-Atlantyk (translations by Sangare). Suddenly, after an hour of one- and two-man storytelling, an ensemble of nine emerges on stage, singing, dancing, and acting a burlesque of Gombrowicz's life — appropriate for an author who was derided by his elders for immaturity. It's like a giant, extended, well-produced Polish joke.
Gombrowicz recounts his journey from Gdynia to Buenos Aires on the S.S. Boleslaw Chrobry. He was sent on a special mission by some "very official Officials" to remind the Polish expatriate literati in Argentina of their roots. Instead, he is faced with a life-altering choice when he learns that Germany has invaded Poland on September 1, 1939: Return home to fight, or remain in Argentina in exile?
In all three parts, Guare captures the essence of the immigrant experience with an uncommon sensitivity. This is impressive considering their disparate forms. It takes a lot of courage and determination to give up the familiar comforts of home to start fresh in a new land. As happened in Czyzewska's case, this often entails accepting a lower status. But when the alternative is death, as is the case for Karel and Gombrowicz, is there really any choice at all? This is a story that still resonates through a new generation of political asylees in the United States.
Gombrowicz's tale proves to be the perfect end note: Rather than the tragic story of a war refuge, his exile is a triumphant liberation. Most important, it was his choice. Exasperated with the "deadly elites" of his Polish entourage and their moth-eaten traditions, Gombrowicz proclaims, "Forget all gods! I don't believe in God. Give me man! May he be like me, troubled and immature, confused and incomplete, dark and obscure so that I can dance with him!"
How rare to hear such a stirring and eloquent ode to immaturity from a 75-year-old playwright, still willing to learn new tricks.