Moon Under Miami

Remains Theatre

at the Organic Theater

I have the most reliable friend that you can have in American politics, and that is ready money. –Senator and presidential candidate Phil Gramm

In John Guare’s exquisite comedy-drama Six Degrees of Separation, a young man pretending to be the son of Sidney Poitier cons his way into the home of a starstruck art collector, proving that even upper-class sophisticates can be had if you drop the right names. Eventually “Paul Poitier,” as the poseur calls himself, is exposed–betrayed in part by his self-delusion–but only after considerable damage has been done.

Now Guare and Remains Theatre artistic director Neel Keller have attempted an imposture almost as foolhardy as Paul Poitier’s. Called Moon Under Miami, it’s a mess masquerading as a play. Workshopped over the years at various east-coast theaters with Keller’s involvement, Guare’s toothless, laboriously vulgar spoof of congressional corruption and the society that spawns it is finally receiving its world premiere at Remains under Keller’s direction. To bankroll the project–because ready money is as reliable a friend in the arts as in politics–Remains capitalized on the celebrity of Guare and pop artist Red Grooms, who was commissioned to design the set. A special committee, headed by Museum of Contemporary Art board chairman Allen Turner and Art Institute of Chicago vice chairman Stanley Freehling, raised a reported $125,000 to “offer John Guare and Red Grooms a home for this show,” in Keller’s words. Paul Poitier never had it so good–and precious private, corporate, and foundation philanthropy has never been more misused.

Inspired by the 1980 Abscam sting, in which the FBI hoodwinked several U.S. congressmen into accepting payoffs from bogus Arab sheikhs, Guare’s plot concerns a straight-arrow FBI agent, Otis Presby, who’s assigned to investigate an unholy alliance between corrupt politicians and an array of drug, gun, and art merchants. After videotaping a cash exchange between sleazy mobster Shelley Slutsky, an Arab arms dealer, and a “Jewban” congressman in touch with his Jewish and Cuban constituents in Miami, Otis falls in love with Slutsky’s wife Corleen, a born-again Christian and the president (and sole member) of the Everglades Light Opera. Presiding over the increasingly convoluted but ultimately meaningless plot is Fran Farkas, an obese nightclub comedian in the rude-and-lewd vein of Rusty Warren, who also turns out to be the alter ego of J. Edgar Hoover–not a gay man but a straight woman dressing for success in a man’s world.

Guare has thrown some important themes into the hopper. Abscam happened 15 years ago, but the underlying issues are timely: politicians’ mad scramble to raise cash for TV commercials–the only way they can reach an ever more insulated and apathetic electorate–and the floundering of post-cold war America, in which a citizenry deprived of larger-than-life villains (Reagan’s “evil empire”) becomes obsessed with its own divisions. “We need an enemy,” Otis proclaims. “We need more repression,” adds Fran/Hoover. Proponents of new laws intended to crack down on “domestic terrorism” in the wake of Oklahoma City might very well agree; if right-wing extremists represent a genuine danger, they’re also a useful tool for games of one-upmanship as politicians vie for the approval of the vindictive minority who still go to the polls.

Instead of probing the illnesses of America’s body politic, Guare relies on paranoid preachments, glib but not clever one-liners, and a depressing array of lame sexual jokes that the folks at the Annoyance and Torso theaters would have thrown out at the first rehearsal. Indeed, it seems Guare is trying to emulate the outrageous excess of shows like Coed Prison Sluts and Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack–or the most extreme routines of John Belushi, for whom Moon Under Miami was originally conceived as a film vehicle. But Guare seems to have no real understanding of the unfettered, low-budget insanity that gives such humor its appeal. Keller’s large cast (including gangly, toothsome Wild Chicago host Will Clinger as Otis, charming Krista Lally as Corleen, Matt DeCaro as Slutsky in a flaccid variation on the Mel Brooks loudmouth he played in Laughter on the 23rd Floor, Valorie Hubbard as a bland, forgettable Fran, and the usually reliable Larry McCauley and Kevin Hurley in an irritating dumb-and-dumber routine as two die-hard FBI guys) have apparently been directed to give it the old college try. They do, and the result is sophomoric.

Meanwhile the play lacks the qualities that distinguish Guare’s best work–the eccentric but credible characterizations and compassionate yet sardonic absurdist humor that enrich The House of Blue Leaves, Landscape of the Body, and Atlantic City as well as Six Degrees. Some sequences do convey Guare’s quirkiness–the goofy operetta courtship of Otis and Corleen, for example, and several 1930s-style song parodies, including the title tune, an homage to Alfred Newman’s classic “Moon of Manakoora” amusingly sung by three women in green mermaid gowns. But they’re few and far between, stranded in a script as swampy as the gator-infested jungle depicted in Grooms’s backdrop painting.

Grooms’s name may have been valuable for the socialite fund-raising committee to bandy about, but his work here (including a motor court, an iceberg, a hotel room with two-way mirror, and a nightclub decorated with Easter Island heads) is minor-league stuff. It lacks the funkiness and disarming whimsy of his ingenious (if pretentiously named) “sculpto-pictoramas”–walk-through installations he made in the 70s and 80s in New York, Chicago, and other cities that in their urban depictions delightfully recalled interactive pop-up books. Grooms’s set here is predictably garish and cartoonish but strangely lifeless and definitely underused. It’s nothing a local designer couldn’t have accomplished for a fraction of the cost.

But celebrity worship–and the money required to finance it–is what Moon Under Miami is really all about. I don’t doubt the sincerity with which Guare has spent more than a decade developing the script or the importance its political themes have for him, but the fact is that without his name on the title page this play would never have seen an audience. The expectations were high–and the failure was costly. Guare’s and Grooms’s reputations were what “interested a group who may not have supported Remains or even theater before,” as the Remains development director put it in a Sun-Times business report. Given the results, one wonders if they ever will again.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Dan Rest.