PLAYWRIGHT JOHN GUARE IS probably best-known for his play Six Degrees of Separation, though he also wrote the screenplay for Louis Malle’s film Atlantic City. After receiving an Obie for Muzeekain 1968, he received a Tony for his libretto of Two Gentlemen of Verona in 1972. That was the year after he’d stunned the New York theater scene with his offbeat comedy The House of Blue Leaves, about a Bronx zookeeper/songwriter’s delirious quest for fame. In that play, the zookeeper’s brother, a Hollywood talent agent, pays a visit to the zookeeper. The zookeeper’s AWOL son bursts in and performs an impromptu dance performance of “The Dying Swan” for his uncle, the agent, who remarks that he hadn’t been aware his nephew was mentally retarded. The talent agent was based on Guare’s uncle, Billy Grady, famous for dismissing Fred Astaire with the screen-test report: “Balding, can’t sing, can’t act, can dance a little.” The boy was Guare’s remembrance of himself.
In 1982, Guare wrote a historical drama, Lydie Breeze, which, over several years, he’s expanded into a two-play cycle, then a three-play cycle, then reconfigured back into two plays. The Open Fist Theater is currently presenting the original 1982 version. Speaking to the Weeklyfrom New York, Guare remarked that when he was trying to explain to the actors who the characters were in Lydie Breeze, he figured it would be simpler to write a second play, and then a third. Each play reaches further back in time, from 1895 to the Civil War.
“I had spent a lot of time in Nantucket, my mother’s and father’s families are both from Nantucket,” Guare explained about his fascination with the play’s setting. “It suddenly became as though Nantucket was this umbrella for all my plays. All my plays had been about New York. I wanted to write plays where I didn’t know where I was, where I would have to find out what it was they didn’t know. I also wanted to find a new way to speak. I know how I talked, I wanted to take that away, I wanted to paint myself in a new corner and see if I could get out. That’s what a writer’s life is, when you have to follow something, when you start a play you don’t know if it’s going to take you a weekend or five years.”