Toward the end of John Guare's tragicomic Landscape of the Body, one of the characters tells us that the mystery is always greater than the solution. This sentiment (seen most recently in the movie thriller Seven) may be oh so au courant, but it may also be a dodge--a way to avoid having to deal with meaning and an excuse for not coming up with a solution as complex and daring as the mystery seems to demand. Guare's blackly humorous take on modern life offers no hope and very little insight. But it does articulate in vivid detail the fear of violence and the escalating sorrows of modern life, grim realities that the Actors Ensemble delivers with force and cunning.
As the audience files in, a woman sits alone on the empty stage. The wonderful, simple set design features an abstract-expressionist backdrop suggesting both a cold, gray sky and, later, the walls of the cold, gray city. The woman writes little notes and tears them from her pad, neatly and with ritualistic deliberation. Then she puts each scrap of writing into a brown bottle, screws the lid back on and throws it solemnly into "the sea" (a man in a black mask catches each bottle, studies it without opening it, and waits for the next). This goes on for quite some time after the play actually begins, too, until a man in a trench coat and fake mustache enters and tries to engage the woman in conversation. They know each other, as it turns out: He is the rogue cop who tried to pin the murder of her son on her.
The story flashes back then, to the interrogation. Cruel, cold-blooded and insane as the cop's behavior is, we see the source of Betty's inviolable isolation. Winding back through the course of her life over the few short weeks she lived in New York City, we learn how Betty and Bert, her fourteen-year-old son, found themselves enmeshed in nasty schemes and degraded lives. Bert hangs with tough street kids who roll homosexuals for fun and profit, and Betty works for a nefarious travel agency that sells honeymoon trips to gullible young newlyweds.
We meet Betty's dead sister, Rosalie, and watch her re-enact the drama of drawing Betty down into a sordid life. It's Rosalie who longs for death and finds it, in true absurdist fashion, under the wheels of a bicycle--the cyclist even rifles her purse for money to pay for the damage she did to his bike.
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Rosalie also unfolds the mystery of Bert's death to the audience, though never to Betty. The casual grotesqueries of conscienceless teen murderers ring too true and too close to endure easily. When Bert's head rolls across the stage in a bloody plastic bag, the eery noise it makes chills the heart--not because we believe it's real, but because the legions of abused and neglected children who populate our city streets grow more ruthless every day.
Director Jeffrey Turner stages Guare's convolutions of plot and character so well that we never feel confused about what is happening to whom or why. The play unravels like a mystery, yet every plot twist is intentionally predictable. Turner keeps the comic timing fast-paced and sharp; there are few wasted movements, and the time burns by quickly.
The best news, though, is Juliana Bellinger's Betty--a moving, layered performance that never fails to make surprising each facet of the character's tormented psyche. Bellinger's power lies in her ability to project intense anguish, weakness and humor all at once (or in rapid succession). Her splendid work is enhanced and balanced by the teenagers in the show--foremost among them young Kevin Townley as Bert. Townley is a natural on stage; he already oozes stage presence, understands how to construct a character and moves like a gazelle or a bumptious puppy as needed. Shanti Lowry, Tana Wojczuk and Justin Speer help build the horror of the piece with their natural performances of troubled children.
However, despite the keen performances and Turner's clever execution, the play itself is still maddeningly empty. The only answer to the terrible suffering of human experience, in Guare's view, is death--which he pictures as liberating and invigorating. Quite an irony, when you think about it--and a ghastly reminder of just how death-centered American culture has become.