John Guare's "Landscape of the Body" is a curious play -- at the same time gleeful and gruesome, giddy and macabre. The Studio Theatre, which has revived it for a run through Feb. 9, has certainly got the nastiness right. But what, you may find yourself thinking as Guare's tale descends into urban squalor, has happened to the other half?
Granted, it's the difficult half to capture, but without the off-the-wall zaniness, this 1977 work can seem terribly unpleasant. And it does in this insistent production, on which director James C. Nicola has lavished an abundance of spray-paint graffiti, punk fashions, overmiked pop-rock music and flashing disco lights. Everything that is dark in "Landscape" is being served, but the firefly twinkle in the playwright's eye is rarely allowed to shine.
The world according to Guare is filled with lethal booby traps, and destiny, while taking the most roundabout route, invariably leads his characters into them. Basically, he's tracing the steps of Betty (Annette Helde), a mother from Bangor, Maine, who journeys to New York City with her young son in an attempt to reclaim her sister Rosalie from the degradation of porno films. Soon after, however, Rosalie is knocked over and killed by a mad bicyclist on a 10-speed yellow Raleigh, and Betty finds herself assuming her sister's sordid life -- porno films and all ("Soft core," she insists in a residual burst of New England propriety).
Betty's son Bert (Michael Wells), meanwhile, undergoes a transformation of his own -- from a wide-eyed rural boy to a Christopher Street tough, who rolls gays for their wristwatches and, in the play's triggering incident, is decapitated and pitched into the Hudson River. For the crusty police captain investigating the case, Betty is suspect numero uno. In this respect, "Landscape" resembles a 1940s film noir -- downbeat and dirty. But it should also be stated that when we first meet him, that captain (Jerry B. Whiddon) is wearing Groucho glasses and nattering on about the Dionne quintuplets.
Guare, you see, is forever qualifying the sleaze with the looniness of his antic imagination. There are no straight lines in "Landscape"; it's all crazy zigzags, beginning with a plot that unfolds in the manner of a Mexican jumping bean -- now backward, now forward, now to the side. From her vantage point in the hereafter (which happens to be a series of spotlighted soda fountain stools), the dead Rosalie narrates the story and sings songs of ironic commentary. But she's got no answers. We inhabit an irrational universe, as entangling as a spider's web, and that unpredictability both amuses and terrifies Guare.
One of his characters, a Cuban-born con man and travel agent (Lawrence Redmond) who wears evening gowns as a badge of his success in the land of plenty, is gunned down in a bank, when all he intends to do is make his 17th deposit in the Christmas Club. While the vicious ways of New York City contribute to Betty's plight, her doom may well have been sealed the day, 19 years earlier, a demented South Carolina Good Humor man (Redmond again) sold her ice cream in the streets of Bangor. He's dreamed about marrying her ever since, and, sure enough, he tracks her down in Greenwich Village.
What does a body do under such circumstances? Well, you can laugh or you can despair. Or you can laugh and despair, as Guare does. This production -- all whacks and no whackiness -- takes an abrasive and mean-spirited approach. Russell Metheny's set, bathed in blue neon, looks like a new wave nightclub, decorated with the torsos of department-store mannequins. The music by Mark Novak blares. An officious stage manager threads through the action, snapping his fingers like an impatient drill sergeant.
As Betty, Helde -- a tall, angular blond beauty -- is cool and combative in stiletto heels and leather miniskirts. But there's very little redeeming softness under her hard veneer, and you'll have trouble believing this cookie ever wore crinolines. Katha Kissman, as Rosalie, sings stridently and struts aggressively, thereby alienating an audience on two counts. Whiddon is a properly hard-bitten investigator, but he, too, fails to project the bewilderment under the bark. Wells proves a real find, though. If his Bert takes readily to the mean streets, he never totally relinquishes the innocence of country lanes. And Tami Tappan does nicely as a teen-age chippy who believes every horror tale in the supermarket tabloids.
Nicola, however, can't coax the true daffiness out of this "Landscape," or else he isn't interested. It's symptomatic of the production that the nuttiest characters -- the Cuban in spangled skirts and the deluded ice cream vendor -- are both played by Redmond as unadulterated basket cases. To find the threat and menace in Guare's work is no chore. The challenge is to locate the odd glimmers of poetry and compassion that are also part of his vision.
What Nicola has summoned up verges on "A Clockwork Orange."
Landscape of the Body, by John Guare. Directed by James C. Nicola. Sets, Russell Metheny; costumes, Nancy Konrardy; lighting, Daniel MacLean Wagner. With Annette Helde, Jerry B. Whiddon, Katha Kissman, Lawrence Redmond, Michael Wells, Christopher Bauer, Tami Tappan, Jenny Lister. At the Studio Theatre through Feb. 9.