By Joseph Hurley
LYDIE BREEZE, by John Guare. Directed by Itamar Kubovy. Featuring Elizabeth Marvel, Bill Camp, Boris McGiver, Matt Servitto. At the New York Theatre Workshop, East 4th Street, NYC. Through July 2.
John Guare, among the most productive Irish-American dramatists, has, in "Lydie Breeze," undertaken a two-play "cycle" of an ambition and complexity sufficient to challenge even the more rigorously demanding works of Eugene O’Neill.
Directed by Itamar Kubovy, the halves are titled "Bulfinch’s Mythology" and "The Sacredness of the Next Task," with Part I beginning in 1875 and ending in 1884, while both acts of Part II take place in 1895.
The overall effect, with the same actors occupying the same parts through the tale’s long journey, start to finish, is extremely curative, while, at the same time, the staging strengthens and underscores the similarities between Guare’s ambitions and intentions and those of O’Neill, who had set a cycle of plays in the same region and in the same time period, namely New England in the 19th century.
O’Neill never lived to complete his project, of which only "A Touch of the Poet" and "More Stately Mansions" exist in finished form, but the resonances linking the two endeavors are profound and valuable.
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With Guare, as with O’Neill, the importance played by dreams in ordinary lives is significant, even crucial. In "Lydie Breeze," which derives its name from the heroine who influences the lives of all of the male characters in the cycle, a group of friends, veterans of the Civil War, establish a Utopian commune in Nantucket.
Guare’s Civil War returnees are Joshua Hickman (Bill Camp), Amos Mason (Boris McGiver), and Dan Grady (Matt Servitto), and they are accompanied by the title character, played brilliantly by Elizabeth Marvel. Lydie Breeze is a nurse who had attended to all three men in their soldiering days, helping them to survive the carnage.
The saga is so logical, and at times so compelling that it seems possible that the overall endeavor will, in the end, fulfill Guare’s objectives. But "Lydie Breeze," much like the idealized design for living that occupies its earliest scenes, eventually succumbs to a kind of dying fall, as "Part II: The Sacredness of the Next Task" dribbles away in a haze of meaninglessness and even a form of silliness, as the plot and its characters move through a second generation, arriving at the play’s concluding year, 1895.
Failure, in a sense, was built into the framework of the Utopian communities that sprouted up around America in the latter half of the 19th century.
Among Guare’s themes, of course, is the inability of human beings to sustain the idealism of earthly paradises, which is, at base, what communes like Aipotu, the one created by the playwright for the cycle, are aiming to be.
When Guare’s major characters, interlocked psychologically as well as sexually, are first seen, they have been living in Nantucket, in the house they have dubbed Aipotu for seven years, and rot, prompted by habitual poverty, has already set in.
Amos Mason, illiterate and inexperienced, dreams of studying at Harvard. Joshua, yearning to become a writer, has worked for those seven years on a novel that has just been rejected by the famous literary man William Dean Howells.
The more practical Dan Grady, initially Lydie’s lover, has departed in favor of a job as a railroad man, in the hope of bringing back enough cash to keep the commune afloat. When he returns with an unexpectedly huge sum, a valise full of stolen money, the lethal poison begins to infiltrate the prevailing calm of Aipotu.
Fine as Marvel is as Lydie, she’s matched all the way by Camp’s decaying idealism of Joshua, and, in the play’s splashiest role, by the subtle pyrotechnics of Boris McGiver.
The excellent Servitto is only mildly hampered by the fact that his character, Grady, disappears early on. Joanna P. Adler is outstanding as Beatty, as are Alicia Goranson as Lydie’s youngest daughter, and Alexandra Oliver as Gussie, her older sibling.
"Lydie Breeze" is best seen as a cycle, and as such it’s being presented four times every week, with Part I on Tuesdays and Thursdays and Part II following along on Wednesdays and Fridays. Even better, and surprisingly easy to take, the cycle can be seen on Saturdays and Sundays, with Part I at 3 p.m. and Part II at 7:30 p.m. both days.