BOSOMS AND NEGLECT by John Guare Directed by Mel Shapiro
Bosoms and Neglect tells more about America today than last Sunday’s New York Times and a year of Dallas. It closed on Broadway after three nights but now it has hit the big time in Stratford, giving the festival a needed shot in the arm that threatens to go for the jugular instead.
The plot is pure black comedy out of Grand Guignol. Eighty-three years old and blind, Henny (Kate Reid) has been
hiding breast cancer behind Kotex pads and ministering to it with a plastic statue of St. Jude (patron saint of lost causes). She literally reveals the disease to her introverted computer-analyst son, Scooper (Ray Jewers), sending him into a tailspin of guilt because she has kept it a secret for two years. Scooper, the embodiment of frazzle, hospitalizes Henny and promptly picks up Deirdre (Patricia Collins), a fellow psychoanalytic patient and book freak dressed in black mourning for her dog.
Deirdre and Scooper may act like weirdos but they speak volumes, both comic and tragic, about the modern psyche. Rarely has the inability of two solitudes to touch been presented so touchingly as in the stylized antiphonal liturgy of their near-seduction. John Guare understands perfectly the painful egotism of selfishness, the fear that once the soul is stripped bare it will be judged “not complicated enough,” the hubris that accompanies the total abdication of will and responsibility. (Boasts Deirdre, “What Beethoven is to the sonata I am to the couch.”) The scene, which takes up the entire first
act, is daringly conceived; after a shaky start the actors finish strong, despite a text that is often too archly literate and psychoanalytically esoteric.
In the rich tradition of American playwriting from Arthur Miller to Sam Shepard that employs past traumas revealed as the generative matrix for action, Guare hands the combatants in this erotic duel loaded memories and lets them go to it. All ends in violence, of course, and both wind up in the same hospital as Henny, who responds to Scooper’s incessant demands for senti-
mental truths with salacious one-liners frothing with a vitality fated to elude him forever. Eventually Scooper and Deirdre hobble off to retrieve their mutual shrink/father/God, and Henny spills her own dark secret into his empty wheelchair. But unlike the play’s other revelations, this final speech, Reid’s superb rendering notwithstanding, remains strangely unsatisfying: although it unravels a mystery that has teased the brain, isolated from any dramatic context it leaves the heart in bondage, untouched.
Phillip Silver’s sets, especially the claustrophobic muted fawns of Deirdre’s book-lined apartment, drift in solitary confinement within the Avon theatre proscenium, reinforcing the play’s disembodied tensions. Mel Shapiro’s direction is insightful, but the real stars are Guare’s text and Reid’s truly definitive performance, as raw and mesmerizing as an open wound. Who knows, some day even Broadway might be ready to take another look.
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