Strawdog Theatre Company

I once tried to interview John Guare. He was friendly and apparently eager to answer my questions–he leaned forward in his chair as though hanging on my every word. But he answered each question with just a couple of words, or at most a sentence. Then he would stare at me, smiling, and wait for another question.

I was baffled by this. People who resent a reporter’s questions often give monosyllabic answers, but Guare didn’t appear to be hostile. He simply was hostile, so I cut the interview short and went home.

Guare seems to have used this same passive-aggressive strategy in his 1968 play Muzeeka, which is being staged by the Strawdog Theatre Company. It appears to be friendly, good-natured, and playful, but beneath the surface it churns with anger and anxiety.

Hiding hostility behind a charming facade is an adolescent gesture of contempt, one that says, “I’ll give you smiles and good manners, you fool, because you couldn’t possibly understand the pain I am in.” And many of Guare’s plays are steeped in an adolescent sensibility. They revolve around characters who are adolescents at heart, engaged in that painful adolescent task of forging an identity for themselves. Bosoms and Neglect, for example, is about a grown son’s difficulty separating from his ailing mother. The House of Blue Leaves involves a zookeeper who fancies himself a talented songwriter and whose son plans to achieve fame by assassinating the pope. Even Guare’s most recent play, Six Degrees of Separation, is about a young man who tries to achieve social acceptance by pretending to be the son of Sidney Poitier.

In Muzeeka, one of Guare’s earliest plays, we find yet another young man who doesn’t know who he is. His name is Jack Argue, and he is locked in a ferocious argument with himself. He is a conservative, respectable young man, but he identifies with the Etruscans he’s seen dancing ecstatically on vases. He takes a job with Muzeeka–a company that produces innocuous background music–but his secret plan is to introduce into the bland sound tracks an astounding new music that will “free all the Etruscans in our brains.” He lives in suburban Connecticut but longs to be part of the bohemian life-style of Greenwich Village. “I see all you people swarming the streets tonight,” he tells a denizen of the village, “you revolters, you rebels with your hair and flowers and beards and birds and braids and boots and beads and I look in your eyes for the visions drugs have given you and tonight I admire you–love you so much.” He considers himself a devoted husband, but is in bed with a prostitute when his wife delivers their first child. (The prostitute sizes him up at a glance. “Look at this phony,” she says to the audience while dangling above him in her “Chinese basket.”)

Argue ends up fighting in Vietnam, in a war that triggered an identity crisis for the entire nation. To his horror, he discovers that killing helps him break through the “cortical overlay,” the brain covering that deadens our instincts and separates us from the spontaneous ecstasy displayed by the Etruscans painted on vases. “War is God’s invention to make us remember we are animals,” he concludes.

In one strangely prescient scene, Guare has Argue return from Vietnam and accept congratulations from well-wishers. But he could just as well be returning from the war in the Persian Gulf. “Of course I’ve killed people,” Argue says. “I’ve put bullets in people’s eyes. Thank you! Thank you! I’ve put, let me think, bullets in, yes, people’s ears, and I’ve put bullets in . . . thank you very much . . . people’s noses and bullets in people’s bellies and belly buttons . . . hello there! Sure is good to be back . . . and backs! Yes, people’s backs.”

Muzeeka anticipates the adolescent concerns that Guare later returned to; but instead of seeming childish, it provides a wonderful reflection of the rage and uncertainty of the late 1960s. By hiding his anger behind Muzeeka’s fanciful dialogue and playful plot, Guare seems to be saying, with bitter irony, “Sure, American society stifles creativity and simple human decency in the name of economic progress, but no need to get upset. Let’s just laugh and be silly.” By having the play’s flippant tone contradict the anguish he feels, Guare manages to avoid the preachy accusations so prevalent in the 60s.

The Strawdog Theatre’s production is an extremely low-budget effort, but director Paul Engelhardt has managed to convey Guare’s irony with a simple, straightforward staging of the play. David Franks portrays Argue as a wide-eyed young innocent who doesn’t have the slightest idea that he’s hopelessly at odds with himself, and Kelly Butler plays his wife with an appropriately bored and deadpan delivery. While the set, costumes, and props are all very crude, the performances capture the paradox between Guare’s deep anger and his flippant expression of it. And by inserting the names of General Schwarzkopf, George Bush, and other contemporary figures into the chant at the end of the play, Engelhardt reminds us that there’s still plenty to be angry about.