John Guare’s Screwball Pageant; Mike Leigh’s Peculiar Anti-Farce

John Guare’s new play with the ungainly title, A Few Stout Individuals , with its manic swirl of ideas and eccentricities, its heady literary allusions and fantasy, is at least one of his more typical screwball contributions. It’s a merry thinking-man’s stew about the dying, impoverished Ulysses S. Grant and the race to finish his potentially best-selling memoirs.

The company Grant keeps is unexpected, including the Emperor and Empress of Japan. And what, we may ask, bowing before their ghostly royal presence, are they doing here? Well, we quickly find out in the splendid opening moments, in which the robed Emperor announces, “I am memory,” and the bewildered Grant, slumped in his wheelchair, asks, “But who am I?”

Any drama that can start with such bold originality promises the world. But the last thing a serious dramatist should be content to be is screwball . Unless they’re Kaufman and Hart (who aren’t, of course, serious). Is Mr. Guare as content as he seems? His intellectual curiosity in A Few Stout Individuals -the title comes from Emerson’s dictum that history is “no more than the biography of a few stout individuals”-is keen, but I’m afraid the outcome is slack and fuzzy. Too much screwball loses the plot. (So does too much plot.) In his scattershot way, Mr. Guare lurches lazily off into any showboating area that springs to mind, and our response swings with the ups and downs of the play.

The pageant of history in the making that the director Michael Greif keeps on the boil with his excellent cast is a pleasure. Mr. Guare’s take on immortality is caught in the intriguing line “Can you be a former immortal?” But that startling thought veers chaotically off-course, and, for me, the dramatist’s jazzy free-form riffs that spiraled effortlessly between reality and fantasy in his most appealing work have been replaced by a veneer of his style.

I say so reluctantly, for the dramatist of such earlier delights as The House of Blue Leaves has been struggling of late to recapture his best comic form. The wild swings of comedy and taste in his last outing, Chaucer in Rome (which had nothing to do with Chaucer), reached an absurdist low in superficiality with a sour message that appeared to claim that art poisons the artist (or vice versa). Not since the high pretensions of his Four Baboons Adoring the Sun had he written anything so wobbly.

A Few Stout Individuals is a giant step above those giant lapses. But then, only Mr. Guare would ask us to seriously consider the nature of myth and memory in Western civilization while being unable to resist the silliness of guest appearances by a salesman of magic hair tonic (read “charlatan”), a loony comic sculptor (read “faux artist”) and Adelina Patti, the opera diva (read “celebrity”).

The frantic spirit of the Marx Brothers is present, and welcome. But the targets are familiar-the vagaries of the publishing industry, exploitation, fame, greed, New York, New York. It’s all dressed up as “ideas” (plus quotations from Shakespeare, no less, and dark sermons on the horrors of war). We must say that Mr. Guare’s preening preoccupation with celebrity is becoming a tiresome form of name-dropping. Messages are repeated; dialogue goes blustery. “America is the ultimate democracy,” goes one of the flagging aphorisms. “Anyone can end up in the gutter.” Hmm. The irony, we assume, is a wee bit heavy-handed, the joke a tired one.

There are just too many misfires in Mr. Guare’s lurching plot. Apart from the too-passive character of Ulysses S. Grant (given towering, befuddled dignity by Donald Moffat), the focus shifts to everyone surrounding him-his spoilt, adoring wife, his two wayward sons, his Anglophile daughter, his publisher Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain), his scheming secretary and his story, his black valet and his story. And on. Throw in the phantom royal folks from Japan, the zany comic turns, the madcap family squabbles, and we are reminded of an unfortunate line of Mr. Clemens: “I like things to be funny, but this goes too far …. “

Mike Leigh Celebrates Ignorance

Mike Leigh, the British dramatist and filmmaker, has described his comedy Smelling a Rat as an “anti-farce.” Anything is possible, and apparently he set out to write a farce that isn’t funny. He succeeded.

He’s succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. It’s no secret that, as a general rule of thumb, farces are meant to be funny. But Mr. Leigh’s aren’t. Hence his “anti-farce.” This is an anti-review.

You see the mood I’m in? Now, in all fairness, I must say the audience found Smelling a Rat pretty funny on the night I went. What can I say? They’re not supposed to. Well, not according to Mr. Leigh.

Mr. Leigh suffers from some kind of strange British misery. It so happens he was born in the same town as me, and he was born miserable. You would be, too, if you were born in the north of England. I knew him when we were schoolboys, actually. He was a quiet, morose, middle-class lad who would say of the funniest things, “I don’t get the joke.” Or, “What’s so funny?”

Since then, of course, the good Mike Leigh has gone on to become a major filmmaker ( Topsy-Turvy , Secrets & Lies ) but not, to my taste, a major dramatist ( Goose-Pimples , Ecstasy ). A while ago, we met each other after a hundred years and in his quiet, morose way he asked me what I was doing nowadays. I didn’t have the courage to tell him I was a drama critic. I said I drove a truck, and although he looked suspicious, he said, “That’s good.”

As I was saying, anti-farces go against the grain in my book of Good Playwriting. Smelling a Rat is really an outer-farce. An exterminator named Rex Weasel-try not to be convulsed with laughter quite so soon-comes home to his horribly nouveau riche bedroom during the Christmas hols. Enter Vic Maggot, who’s employed by the Weasel vermin-control company, accompanied by his wife, Charmaine, who’s also a working-class idiot. Weasel, who’s still supposed to be in Spain, hides in the closet.

Nothing much then happens. At length, the Maggots decide to hide in two other closets. This is because two more idiots have arrived-Rock Weasel, the surly son of Rex, and his hysterically inclined, sort of posh girlfriend, Melanie-Jane Beetles. (Weasels, Maggots and Beetles.) But nothing much happens next, either. Rock tries to seduce Melanie-Jane. The Maggots belatedly come out of the closet. Rex Weasel is still in the closet, but you may have forgotten about him by the time he comes out in a temper. He has a gun, but nothing happens with it.

Produced by the New Group at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, the ensemble, led by the veteran English actor Terence Rigby, is far superior to the sketch they’re performing. And no more than an inconsequential little sketch it surely is. The 1988 Smelling a Rat is directed by Scott Elliott, who has staged Mr. Leigh’s so-called working-class dramas before and, indeed, is responsible for his high reputation here. Mr. Leigh’s well-known playwriting method is to write his plays via improvisations with his actors. But that’s exactly what Smelling a Rat amounts to-a soft improv around a bizarre, weasely theme. I tend not to enjoy characters who invite us to laugh at their stupidity. The true farceur makes us laugh unknowingly. Mr. Leigh’s patronizing anti-farce celebrates ignorance, whereas the authentic farce nails it. I guess, with Smelling a Rat, I just don’t get the anti-joke.