3 Kinds of Exile

nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 12, 2013

There are undoubtedly many more than three kinds of exile, but playwright John Guare examines exactly that many in this new triptych of short works premiering at Atlantic Theater Company. Two of these short plays focus on men who make their unlooked-for journeys away from their homelands work for them in the long run; the third, chronologically and artistically the center of 3 Kinds of Exile, is about a woman for whom exile is a kind of choice, a kind of political/artistic statement, and ultimately a terrific cross to bear through decades without a real country to call her own.

This woman is a real person, Elżbieta Czyżewska, who for the first ten years or so of her career was hailed as Poland's greatest actress and seemed destined for legendary status. But Elżbieta fell in love with American journalist David Halberstam and left Poland for America in the 1960s. In Elzbieta Erased, Guare chronicles what happened to her next.

What interested me most about this piece is how personal it is. From two podiums Guare himself and actor/theater professor Omar Sangare narrate Elzbieta's story, bringing her from the peak of her profession (starring in the Polish premiere of Arthur Miller's After the Fall) to, in just a few years, the sad ignominy of being known only as a famous American newspaperman's wife. And then something unexpected happens: almost in passing, Guare mentions "the playwright John Guare"—himself, 40 years ago—and explains how his path first crossed that of Elżbieta. Sangare has a similar moment shortly afterward. Suddenly, an event that felt merely edifying and theatrical became palpably intimate, tinged with hints of melancholy and regret. The choices Elżbieta made that enforced her exile—from her home, from her profession—are shown to us reflected through the sad helplessness of two men who knew her but couldn't save her. It's quite an experience.

Guare, who I've known and admired as a playwright for many decades now, proves throughly able as a performer. Sangare, who I've known as a playwright and as the founding artistic director of the United Solo festival since 2010, is magnetic here and in the evening's third play, Funiage. While Guare mostly plays a version of himself, Sangare inhabits a variety of characters, frequently Elżbieta herself. He has great presence on stage, and he's exciting to watch.

In Funiage, which is inspired by the works of Witold Gombrowicz, Sangare (who provided translations of two of Gombrowicz's plays) takes on a more mythic role of "Gonzalo," a sort of male Argentine siren beckoning the play's hero (Gombrowicz) away from the Old World and into the New. Funiage is about a progression from being exiled to embracing it, as the young playwright at its center realizes that by leaving behind a homeland that doesn't understand his art he can re-invent himself rather than reign his impulses in. The play's tone is antic and even surreal, and makes for a jarring companion to the more serious and introverted Elzbieta Erased. It also, frankly, felt a little long: in the play it takes Witold quite a while to come to a realization that I understood nearly as soon as he left his native Poland. Funiage features all of the evening's actors except for Guare, with David Pittu in the lead role.

I've left 3 Kinds of Exile's curtain raiser for last. Called Karel, it's a monologue delivered impecabbly by the fine actor Martin Moran, about a man looking back on his own exile, as a boy, when the country he lived in got invaded by another country while he was abroad. It blends naturalism and absurdism with the ease that we have come to expect from Guare, and I was with it until the very end. Only its final moment felt inorganic. It's a splendid lead-in to Elzbieta Erased, and the contrasting definitions of the word courage in these two pieces contain morsels of wisdom that remind us we're in the presence of one of America's playwriting titans. Reason, to be sure, to take this in.

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