"Chaucer in Rome," John Guare's scrambled meditation on art, sin and salvation, is as peculiar as anything this unabashedly peculiar playwright has written.

“Chaucer in Rome,” John Guare’s scrambled meditation on art, sin and salvation, is as peculiar as anything this unabashedly peculiar playwright has written. As entertaining as it is exasperating, entirely captivating and maddeningly unconvincing, this confounding comedy begins as a tart satire of the art world and then slowly morphs into something more disturbing, a mournful sequel of sorts to Guare’s early play “The House of Blue Leaves.”

Directed with highly caffeinated panache by Nicholas Martin, “Chaucer in Rome” at first concentrates on the dilemma facing Matt (Jon Tenney), an up-and-coming painter enjoying a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome (the playwright’s wife is the president of that institution).

It seems Matt’s art is killing him. As the play opens, his best friend, Pete (Bruce Norris), and girlfriend, Sarah (Carrie Preston), are translating the diagnosis of Matt’s chain-smoking Italian doctor. The toxins in Matt’s oils have caused the cancers the doc just removed from his skin; to continue to paint would be suicidal. Better to die an artist than live a civilian, Matt thinks, but Pete and Sarah vow to find him a new medium.

Before they put their plan in motion, however, Pete runs into Father Shapiro (Lee Wilkof), a worldly, wisecracking cleric who’s squiring pilgrims around Rome during the holy year. Guare’s satiric target thus switches from the pretensions of the contemporary art scene to the commodification of religion.

As Father Shapiro explains, the city is swamped with Christians angling to get in on a spiritual Special Offer: “You come to Rome during the year 2000, visit four special basilicas out of seven, go to confession and communion. Bingo! Straight up to Paradise. A very good deal.” And it’s Intl. Gay Pride Week and fashion week, to boot.

“Rome is out of control!” Father Shapiro shouts, and so, increasingly, is the play. Guare soon drops Shapiro and the tantalizing prospect of gay activists mixing it up with Catholic pilgrims, ricocheting instead in another new direction. What are we to think when Matt reveals he put the toxins in his own paint, making his art a sort of aesthetic-political statement about the poisoning of the Earth? What to make of Sarah’s confession that she wouldn’t be at all disappointed if Matt couldn’t paint anymore because painting is phallocentric? Or her invocation of Elijah as a symbol of the unexpected event that can change a life?

The latter, a familiar Guare motif, at least cues the arrival of Ron (Dick Latessa) and Dolo (Polly Holliday), Pete’s parents from Sunnyside, Queens, of whom he’s mortally ashamed. Around the corner is the play’s biggest surprise: When Pete suggests Matt make art out of videotaped pilgrims’ confessions, beginning with his parents (never mind that Matt had called video “the last refuge of the untalented” about 15 minutes back), we learn via their confessions that Ron is the son of Artie Shaughnessy, the wife-killing main character in “House of Blue Leaves.”

In their peculiar confessionals, the play turns away from its antic blend of farce and satire and moves into darker territory. Dolo reveals a burden of guilt that goes well beyond the rational: “Every time you see in the paper an unsolved murder, I did it,” says this sweet old lady, played with a plain, melancholy wistfulness by Holliday. When she adds, “I know I have sin because this pain inside has to be a sin,” the play hits a strong, sudden note of crystalline emotion. Ron then casually confesses that he knows he’ll kill Dolo one day, “because it’s in my bloodstream — like me being an artist.”

Beautifully rendered as they are by Holliday and Latessa, these anguished bulletins raise still more bewildering questions about Guare’s intentions in this decidedly cross-eyed play. His ideas on the connections between art and suffering and sin and celebrity never coalesce coherently here. In Guare’s best work, patterns gradually emerge from the comic chaos, but here, absurd scraps of dialogue and suggestive ideas are tossed together haphazardly and then dropped, while characters (particularly Matt and Sarah) seem to be mere erratic implements of the author’s will.

What does it all mean? Well, Guare could be commenting on the desperation and corruption that ensue when one’s deepest impulses are thwarted, when the dreams that animate our lives evaporate and we are left to make other plans. (But he treated similar themes with more pain and poignancy in “Blue Leaves.”) It could be seen as an ironic riff on the unequal distribution of guilt in the world; while Dolo is haunted by a positively monstrous and entirely unearned burden of sinfulness, the eventually corrupted Matt and Sarah are free of any feelings of responsibility for the pain they cause. More superficially, there are plenty of funny jabs at the blurring lines between art and commerce in our success-besotted age.

But who really knows? Only Guare — and maybe the pope. The cast’s fine, funny performances keep our attention firmly focused on the wayward paths of the writing, but “Chaucer in Rome” is such an undisciplined — if fascinating — piece of work that the thesps’ efforts probably won’t mean much to Lincoln Center Theater audiences trying to puzzle their way out of this one. There’s no escaping that this brilliant but erratic writer’s literary pilgrimage to the holy city is an unholy mess.

Chaucer in Rome

Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater; 299 seats; $55

Production

A Lincoln Center Theater presentation of a play in one act by John Guare. Directed by Nicholas Martin.

Creative

Sets, Alexander Dodge; costumes, Michael Krass; lighting, Donald Holder; music and sound, Mark Bennett; stage manager, Michael Brunner. Artistic director, Andre Bishop; executive producer, Bernard Gersten. Opened June 7, 2001. Reviewed June 3. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.

Cast

Matt - Jon Tenney Sarah - Carrie Preston Pete - Bruce Norris Il Dottore/Father Shapiro/ Joe/Charlie - Lee Wilkof Il Tassinaro - Antonio Edwards Suarez Renzo - Umit Celebi Dolo - Polly Holliday Ron - Dick Latessa
With: Susan Finch, Mark Fish, Nancy McDoniel, Tim McGeever.

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