One of the most often quoted entries in Samuel Johnson's dictionary is his definition of opera as "a bizarre and irrational entertainment." This was an accurate description for the opera Johnson would have seen in mid-18th century London, Italian creations with artificial plots about ancient mythology, pretexts for elaborate stage machinery.
Johnson's definition applies perfectly to John Guare's "Four Baboons Adoring the Sun," a deliberate attempt to parody Baroque Italian opera, from its declamatory style to its mythological trappings to its opulent scenic effects.
It is certainly bizarre and irrational. Whether it is entertaining depends on your own tastes, particularly your tolerance for the artificial.
Guare's play is about two anthropologists - engagingly played by Stockard Channing and James Naughton - leaving their spouses, trying to see if they can blend nine children from their respective marriages into one family. The children accompany them on an archeological dig in Sicily.
Shortly after they arrive, Channing has the children choose mythological names from two envelopes. As soon as the oldest boy draws the name of Icarus - the boy who died flying with wings his father built - we know he's in for trouble.
The action, such as it is, is overseen by the pagan god Eros, who sings his material in an elegant recitative by the composer Stephen Edwards. (The beautiful baritone of Eugene Perry, who plays Eros, provides welcome relief from the otherwise dry, often pretentious dialogue.)
Channing and Naughton have great stage authority, but they cannot deepen the material. Angela Goethals and Wil Horneff, as the oldest children, are incredibly poised, but they too cannot make their characters any more human than Guare has.
To mount so consciously artificial a play you obviously need an English director. The English have not forgotten that composers occasionally write divertimenti rather than symphonies, and they know how to make these things work. Peter Hall invests the production with a bravura that makes it amusing if never convincing.
The real star is Tony Walton, whose wondrous sets, hauntingly lit by Richard Pilbrow, give the play a mythic aura the writing strives for but does not attain.
John Guare's new play for the Lincoln Center Theater, "Four Baboons Adoring the Sun," which opened at the Vivian Beaumont last night, is about family matters. And sunshine. And the Greeks. And Dionysus and Apollo. And earthquakes and volcanoes. And all that kind of stuff.
The story is as simple as its message - and while there are plenty of incidental pleasures and even a few conundrums along the way, eventually the simplicity seems disappointing. When, at the end, bathed in sunlight, as adoring as any baboons, the apparent survivors bask in survival, one feels the letdown of a story without a punch line or a play without a punch. But I get ahead of myself.
Penny (Stockard Channing) and Philip (James Naughton) McKenzie are two archaeologists who have beaten the system. Well, they were hardly archaeologists when they actually discovered the system they had to beat. Lovers and archaeological students at college, they lost contact - he acquired an alcoholic spouse and became a desk-bound professor of archaeology somewhere vague, and she transmogrified into the dutiful wife of a womanizing congressman.
A lecture in New York, a chance meeting not quite by chance, an illicit tryst over drinks, a surprise skirmish in a hotel bedroom - then, as quick as a summer storm, divorce and remarriage in a romantic Paris. And now - at the beginning of Guare's play - Penny and Philip are suddenly in sunny Sicily, on their own archaeological dig, awaiting the arrival of their brood of children (five for her, four for him) via Alitalia.
The plan is to merge them as one gorgeously free family, and to show them the delights of archaeology and perhaps the lessons of myth. Why not? For, after all, unseen by everyone except Guare and the audience, the play is already inhabited by the figure of Eros (Eugene Perry), a scantily clothed and operatic figure who sings music by Stephen Edwards which sounds very much after (and far after) Benjamin Britten.
Now the plan unfolds. Penny has even arranged for them all to have new and special mythological names. Wayne (Wil Harneff), Philip's eldest son, is given the name Icarus. Remember Daedalus also escaped to Sicily! We sense bad vibes. Yeah - we have guessed it.
The groups merge - more happily than the married-single parents might have feared - indeed with Wayne and Penny's Halcy (Angela Goethals), both 13 years old, the merging is more complete than most state laws encourage.
There is a very real earthquake (Tony Walton's wondrous setting makes an equal speciality of both beauty and special effects) which is also probably a metaphor, there is a death in the family (some people fly who shouldn't), and the hard choice of second guessing.
Eros, for all his fancy vocalizing, is only interested in lust in the Sicilian dust and propagation. The McKenzies are more concerned with love, family and propaganda. But tragedy splits the family almost down the middle.
The great Russian impresario, Serge Diaghilev, once described two ballerinas as "halves of the same apple, but one half had ripened in the sun," and that is the way of Penny and Philip. Dionysus and Apollo - sun and shadow, fire and earth. Penny and Philip. But so what?
Peter Hall's staging exquisitely makes comparatively much out of comparatively little. Note not only how, helped magically by Richard Pilbrow's sultry lighting, he separates myth from mystery, but also the manner in which he lays the play down, almost choreographing the action while eliciting maximum characterization from a cast - including Harneff and Goethals, both admirably restrained - that is almost all children.
Not quite all - Perry is most humorously elusive as Eros, while Channing, all blunt yet vulnerable charm, and the bluffly no-nonsensical Naughton prove perfect as the sun-crossed lovers.
This is, in every way, a glossy production of a glossy play, but beneath the gloss there just seems to be more gloss. And all that glosses is not bold - or glitter-dust to that general effect.
John Guare's "Six Degrees of Separation" may be best remembered as a post-crash bonfire of the vanities, a savagely funny unmasking of all kinds of Manhattan impostors of the late 1980's. But what made the play moving to me and timeless was its story of one woman's heroic search for authenticity -- for love and rebirth -- amid all that fraudulence. At evening's end Mr. Guare left us not with satirical laughter but with the image of a sadder but resolute Stockard Channing, in the role of the society wife Ouisa Kittredge, as she yearned to revisit the Sistine Chapel and reach once more toward the hand of God, as she desperately hoped to hold on to the real passion she had briefly tasted in an encounter with a vanished con artist.
"Four Baboons Adoring the Sun," Mr. Guare's new play at the Vivian Beaumont and a fair bet to be the most controversial play of the season, puts the same great actress on the same stage in the same rending, do-or-die quest for some transcendent reason to go on living in a universe where there are too many degrees of separation between any two people. But everything else is wildly different, as if a beloved old folk tale had been set down in the middle of a mad dream. The least of the differences is Ms. Channing's new character, Penny McKenzie, a suburban housewife who has left her husband to marry an old collegiate flame, an archeologist named Philip (James Naughton). The other shifts in the landscape are so dramatic that even before the house lights dim the audience knows it is being shoved into an alien world.
What greets us upon arrival in Peter Hall's commanding and poetic production is a classical set designed by Tony Walton, a mosaic-flecked disk that oozes smoke from a center-stage opening and is surrounded by mysterious detritus redolent of the Bronze Age. When the play starts, the first character to arrive is Eros ( Eugene Perry), an Ariel-like sprite who sings his dialogue to melancholy operatic fragments composed by Stephen Edwards. Though Ms. Channing's reassuringly familiar, contemporary presence emerges soon after in Gap fashions, Mr. Guare removes her from the recognizable social circumstances of Manhattan, strips away all but a few jokes, abandons logical narrative and piles on myths, dreams and hallucinations, not to mention a quasi-Greek chorus of nine tart-tongued American children.
For the audience, it's a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. One either accepts Mr. Guare's reverie on its own exotic terms from the start or is shut out entirely, with no clearly marked route back in. "Four Baboons" is certain to produce what might be called the "Sunday in the Park With George" effect on any row of spectators: some will be dozing at the end of its 80 minutes, others will be actively hostile, others will be sobbing.
I can understand all these points of view, but I can only speak from the perspective of someone who was deeply stirred by this play, not only esthetically by the bold risks of Mr. Guare's experiment but also at a cathartic level by the naked power of what he has to say about the risks of life itself. "Four Baboons" by its very definition demands a personal reaction, one way or another. It is not an intellectual work any more than any fable is. Those tempted to enter Mr. Guare's fantastical adventure need not bone up on mythology or opera or the meaning of antiquity. An open mind will help and so will an open heart. He demands that the audience, like his characters, leap from what the play calls Universe A, that of well-defended adulthood, to Universe B, the imaginative world of childhood to which one hungers to return.
"I'll die if I don't make a change and have love in my life," goes one of Penny's refrains in "Four Baboons." The play's premise is prompted by the making of such a change. Penny and Philip ran off with each other -- and have now run to Sicily, where they are conducting an archeological dig at a burial site -- because they were tired of being the "same old, same old" people, tired of being like everybody else who ever lived off Exit 4 of the Connecticut Turnpike (in Penny's case) or was trapped in the stultifying academic bureaucracy of a large state university (in Philip's). Turned on by each other and their new freedom, the newlyweds bring the offspring of their previous marriages together for the first time in Italy, hoping that their liberated example will save their children from the drugs and alienation that are the lot of American adolescents.
Of course nothing turns out as planned, and some of the events that happen in "Four Baboons" echo those in "Six Degrees." Brutally articulate children revolt against their parents. Philip and Penny are scandalized by an unorthodox sexual liaison in their household. A starry-eyed teen-age boy leaps through the sky in what may be an accident or a suicide attempt or a spiritual if misguided flight to heaven in emulation of Icarus. A teen-age girl is left inconsolable as she realizes that her idealistic dreams have been mutilated and she has been left a bitter, ordinary adult before her time.
There are more mystical and apocalyptic events, too -- when the earth moves in this play, it really moves -- but Mr. Guare's tale can only move in one inexorable direction. "Everything dies," sings Eros. "What's the big surprise?" As the mythological heroes whose tales Penny and Philip force on their children come to horrible endings, so in one way or another must the lives of the mere mortals who follow in their paths. Like "Six Degrees," which had at least three deaths wrapped within its comic plot, "Four Baboons" embraces grief, then rises above it by offering the hope, however frail, of personal resurrection. Penny, like Ouisa, won't be deterred by tragedy from her conviction that her life might somehow be touched by grace, whether through the touch of a human hand or God.
What is technically impressive about "Four Baboons" is Mr. Guare's ability to work out his themes in spare, incantatory and sometimes witty dialogue and metaphorical images that all merge in musical harmony by the final moments. He actually does create a modern mythological realm in which Alitalia Airlines, the Stanhope Hotel and Bellini cocktails can play as large a role as the metamorphoses of ancient legend, in which the cynical realities of present-day divorce can co-exist with an innocent faith in primal magic. As a two-sided Kandinsky painting set the esthetic terms of "Six Degrees," so the titular artwork of this play, a favorite of Penny's and Philip's, dominates its imagery: a mysterious, 4,000-year-old granite sculpture in which four baboons stare into the sun, "their eyes running out of their heads with joy, their eyes burnt out because they've seen their God."
Mr. Hall's work in epic theater, both with classics of the stage and of opera, makes him an inspired choice for this piece, and he and his designers (of sounds and projections along with sets, costumes and lighting) have given it the spectacular treatment, part Etruscan, part Magritte, that it demands. Mr. Hall has also done an impressive job with the daunting pack of children, led by Angela Goethals, who has the most adult acting assignment, and Wil Horneff, a boy who is asked to be enchanting and actually is.
As the attractive though somewhat limited Philip, Mr. Naughton conveys the sturdy intelligence and charm one expects. But when his character is severely tested by the fates, the actor rises higher, turning the husband's inability to respond and grow ("I hate emotions!" he shouts) into a pathetic, if not tragic, flaw. As for Ms. Channing, she seems to have become Mr. Guare's muse, as inseparable from his art as the love and loss and grief and hope that are his subject. Only those who hate emotions could be untouched by the sight of this woman rising from the ashes of unspeakable suffering to face a blinding new day's sun with eyes ablaze in joy.