First Nighter: John Guare, J. B. Priestley, N. C. Hunter at Your Disposal

First Nighter: John Guare, J. B. Priestley, N. C. Hunter at Your Disposal
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Give thanks to the gods of talent for John Guare. They've conferred on him an inquiring mind that finds inspiration in what to others would be obscure places but to him are wellsprings of unexpected dramedy.
Anyone thinking of another playwright who would come up with anything like Guare's new 3 Kinds of Exile at the Atlantic, please advise immediately. Philip Roth might, if he wrote plays, but he doesn't.
The source material for this intermissionless 100-minuter clearly comes from the odd tale Guare has either had relayed to him by a chum, participated in himself or had his attention grabbed from the bottom of a newspaper column where supposedly negligible reports are buried.
The first of the three kinds of exile by which he became obsessed is a story he was told in response to a query he had about a personal predicament. Related by Karel (Martin Moran playing a man presumably based on the director Karel Reisz, a longtime close Guare friend), "Karel" involves a man afflicted by a rash covering his entire body, but for face and hands. The eventual psychosomatic explanation carries a hefty moral about the way in which many of us live our lives.
Polish actress Elzbieta Czyzweska--whom Guare came to know as a result of her playing Ouisa in a Polish production of his Six Degrees of Separation--is the sad, more or less sympathetic heroine of "Elzbieta Erased." Leaving her country after marrying New York Times foreign correspondent David Halberstam and becoming persona non grata as a result of his anti-Poland writings, she spent most of her remaining life in Manhattan, dissipating while smoking black cigarillos.
Czyzweska's mournful saga is reported by speakers A (Guare, talking about himself in the third person) and B (Omar Sangare, who acted the part of Paul in the Six Degrees production).
Witold Gombrowicz (the remarkable David Pittu) is the focus of "Funiage," a sort of revue featuring Guare's jaunty lyrics and music by sound designer Josh Schmidt. Here, Guare employs puckish irony to detail expatriate Gombrowicz's life from the time he arrives in Argentina as Germany is invading Poland in 1939 until his death.
The intricacies of Gombrowicz's seesaw existence take longer to illustrate in song and movement (Christopher Bayes is credited with that) than required. And perhaps some knowledge of the man's life and works, which many patrons won't bring, is necessary for complete enjoyment of this segment. Bear with it. There's a strong pay-off.
There is one aspect of 3 Kinds of Exile that may challenge audiences' tolerance. It's Neil Pepe's direction--on, by the way, an extremely spare Takeshi Kata set enlivened by the occasional Dustin O'Neill projection.
At one point in "Elzbieta Erased," the actress's "wonderfully physicalized" performance technique is praised. It may be that Pepe has used the reference for his approach. Maybe not. Whatever spiked his clearly deliberate directorial choice, Pepe has all performers (among them Atlantic regular Peter Maloney) heightening almost every syllable uttered. Faces ceaselessly mug, arms endlessly flail. Some ticket buyers will take the relentless physicalization in stride, others are likely not to.
The marvelously inventive J. B. Priestley (1894-1984) was last represented on Broadway by Stephen Daldry's elephantine revival of An Inspector Calls, but that was practically an anomaly. The sui generis scribe has barely been noticed locally since his 1930s heyday. So the arrival at 59E59 of his little-known 1935 Cornelius is an opportunity to seize with both hands.
Not just because the production, direct from the Finborough Theatre, London's hottest fringe venue, is the first time the play has been seen either here or there since its bow, but because it's so damn good. Curiously a flop in its time--despite having Ralph Richardson in the title role--it's actually a devastating character study of the eponymous protagonist (the masterfully subtle Alan Cox) as well as a study of the comings-and-goings in a depressed office experiencing a post-1929 financial crisis.
Everyone working in the confines of David Woodhead's confining set--where the wallpaper is curling at the edges and the upstage window is only lifted at the very end--is dissatisfied with his or her own life. That includes 47-year numbers-cruncher Biddle (Col Farrell), frumpy and besotted-with-Cornelius secretary Miss Porrin (Pandora Colin), office boy Lawrence (David Ellis) and chief officer Robert Murrison (Jamie Newall), whose mental stability is foundering. There are also various salespersons invading the precinct to hawk wares like stationery and men's toiletries.
While Briggs & Murrison, which buys and sells aluminium (aluminum, this side of the Atlantic), sinks into oblivion, the kind-hearted James Cornelius alternately chastises and bucks up his co-workers. He also falls for new typist Judy Evison (Emily Barber). His quirks and perkiness aren't entirely what he'd like them to seem, however--certainly not when a gun is brought into play late in the three-act drama, done here in two acts
If there's anything wrong with Cornelius--there's nothing wrong with Sam Yates's direction--it's that the introed firearm almost unavoidably sets up one of two endings, neither of which is satisfying. Which to go for couldn't be a more unusual dramatic quandary, but the one Priestley chooses (did he toss a coin?) doesn't significantly compromises either the play or its remarkable presentation here.
Writing in The New York Times some years ago about several mid-20th-century playwrights who'd been labeled the "English Chekhov," Sheridan Morley said, "[T]hey are now seldom if ever revived and for good reason.
One of the dramatists Morley mentioned is N. C. Hunter, now on view at the Mint. The three-act play--presented in three acts, bless artistic director Jonathan Bank for that--is A Picture of Autumn. It's not fun, though, to report that it serves as a good example of what Morley was getting at.
Directed tidily by Gus Kaikkonen and certainly performed well in every role, it's a perfectly presentable piece about a well-born family during the couple of weeks when it looks as if the members--whether in agreement or not--are going to have to sell their long-time home.
You spotted it, haven't you--the low bow to The Cherry Orchard. Shambling Sir Charles Denham (Jonathan Hogan), Lady Margaret (Jill Tanner), intent-on-selling son Robert (Paul Niebanck), happily adrift son Frank (Christian Coulson), Sir Charles's eccentric brother Harry (George Morfogen) and equally eccentric family retainer Nurse (Barbara Eda-Young) and a couple others putter around while the house dry-rot--symbolic of the Denhams as England's foundering ruling class--is mooted.
There's really nothing wrong with the proceedings, other than at the end of the day--barring some funny third-act exchanges--it's all rather tepid. It's very easy to sit through A Picture of Autumn, which opened in 1951, and think about how welcome John Osborne's Look Back in Anger would be five years later in its infinitely more furious depiction of similar national despair.

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