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Writer's Gift Measured by 'Degrees'

Theater: John Guare, whose most famous play is showing at SCR, quietly helped reshape the contemporary scene.

November 02, 1996|JAN HERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — "If you asked 50 people in the theater to name the top 10 American playwrights, all of them would have John Guare on their lists," Gregory Mosher, the former artistic director of Lincoln Center Theatre, contends.

A longtime associate of Guare's, Mosher, who now heads Circle-in-the-Square on Broadway, describes the 58-year-old playwright as "a magnificent writer" who, along with David Mamet, Sam Shepard and a handful of other dramatists, reshaped the face of contemporary American theater over the past quarter century.

Guare's most famous play, "Six Degrees of Separation," which is getting a top-drawer production at South Coast Repertory, originated at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theater in 1990, moved to the Vivian Beaumont and became that rar ity, a nonmusical Broadway hit.

Critics have raved about it as both a definitive summation of the Reagan era and the quintessential New York play, unmatched for its satirical yettragic depiction of the city's white upper crust, which is suddenly forced to look in the mirror by a black outsider who wants to be one of them.

In one of his rare paeans, Frank Rich, then the much-feared voice of thunder at the New York Times, exulted that "Six Degrees" was the awesome "fulfillment of a promise."

*

Anybody familiar with the arc of Guare's prolific career might agree. He began some three dozen plays ago in 1966 at the Caffe Cino, where he had his first professional production, on a double bill with Shepard. But for all of Guare's early successes and later triumphs, he has received considerably less attention from mainstream theatergoers, not to say the national press, than either Mamet or Shepard.

The tall, Manhattan-born playwright lives on 5th Avenue in a pre-World War II building with a sleek green canopy at the entrance, elegant brass doors and a doorman who delivers messages to each apartment by hand. Guare has been there for 20 years, married for the past 15 or so to Adele Chatfield-Taylor, who heads the internationally prestigious American Academy in Rome, the scholarly institute that gives the Prix de Rome awards in the arts.

Guare's literary eminence notwithstanding--in 1989 the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters elected him to its ranks--he is surprisingly accessible. Getting to meet him can be as easy as opening a can of tuna. You needn't go through Sam Cohn, his fabled, high-powered agent at William Morris.

You just dial Guare at home. He will pick up and tell you to call back the day before you want to see him. There's no sense making an appointment two weeks in advance, he explains, because he hasn't the slightest idea of what he'll be doing that far ahead.

One recent morning we agreed to meet later that afternoon at his favorite neighborhood hangout, the French Roast, a loud and busy cafe. It was jammed, mostly with women who had toddlers beside them or babies in strollers; some customers were students nose-deep in textbooks.

Guare materialized by the corner table I'd been lucky to get. He looked around for a moment and sat down. "This is a nice coincidence," he said, rather pleased. "I always like to sit at this table."

For openers, I asked about the current Broadway scene. What had he seen? Chris Durang's "Sex and Longing," starring Sigourney Weaver as a scantily clad nymphomaniac, had just been roundly panned.

Guare said he'd enjoyed the play and didn't believe it deserved the critical blasts. "I just hope Chris doesn't take them seriously," he added. "I remember having little chats with him. He said he would never write another play as long as Walter Kerr [who recently died] was working."

Guare ordered a decaf coffee.

"That's why I never read reviews," he said. "Can't. I have a very visual memory. If I see something in print, it's carved into my eyeballs."

When he was a kid living at the beach, Guare recalled, he'd had a neighbor who'd written a Broadway play. It only ran nine performances.

"He never recovered from the reviews," Guare said. "Too painful. I learned from that: You can't let them put you to bed for the rest of your life."

From the fit look of him and his relaxed but serious mien, Guare didn't seem ready to do any lying down for anybody. His large face was tan, his iron-gray hair slicked down to his scalp and combed straight back. He had small, round, rimless glasses perched on his nose, giving him a scholarly air.

Perhaps Guare's skepticism about reviews also came from the experience of his own first newspaper notice--at age 11. It certainly should have alerted him to the fickle, arbitrary nature of media judgments.

He and a neighborhood friend in Queens, where Guare grew up, had written a play together and wanted to stage it in a garage.

"We thought we should get a story about the play in Life magazine, with our pictures. I called up Time-Life from a phone booth and said, 'There are these boys putting on a play, and it would be a good story.'

"A voice at the other end of the line said, 'Whom do you want to speak to?' Click.

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