John Guare is one of those “magic writers” who listens to the gabbling voices of his unconscious, jotting down whatever surreal images float to the surface and then bundling them up into something loosely resembling a play. The process is not unlike the way in which Betty Yearn, the beleaguered heroine of his 1977 play “Landscape of the Body,” scribbles notes on scraps of paper that she stuffs into bottles and tosses into the sea. Rows of these message-bearing bottles flank the stage proscenium for this smart revival, telling us helmer Michael Greif has the right handle on Guare’s stream-of-consciousness writing style and on his funhouse of a mind.
In the same way that “The House of Blue Leaves” caught the manic pulse of the 1960s, “Landscape of the Body” taps into the jangling vibe of New York in the ’70s, when streets were filthy, sex was dirty and crime was on the rampage. Although Allen Moyer’s minimal set doesn’t really convey the dinginess of the city after dark, the characters look properly depressed in Miranda Hoffman’s cheerless outfits and have that wary look of people used to glancing over their shoulders for muggers.
The play, cast as a murder mystery, takes its focus from two signature crimes of the period — the trial of Alice Crimmins, who was prosecuted for murdering her two children in a sensational case that also inspired Neil Bell’s play “Two Small Bodies,” and the “Bag Murders” of gay men who trawled for sex in the freight trucks and S&M clubs under the West Side Highway. In an interview for the Signature’s newsletter, Guare also mentions the gangs of teenagers who menaced the streets of the West Village where he lived.
These are the main currents that move through this noir “Landscape.” But other images and incidents, drawn from the playwright’s experiences, also contribute to its rich textures. The rack of stolen watches worn on the arm of a teenage thief. The woman knocked to the street by a guy on a 10-speed bike who rudely complains she broke his bike chain. The off-kilter lyrics (“I’m frightened of you/Forgive me/I’m sorry/Don’t hit me/I love you”) of the songs written by the playwright and sung by a dead woman.
Alive or dead, Guare’s women are terrific characters. Lili Taylor stops the heart as Betty, the anguished mother standing in for Alice Crimmins. Accused of killing her 14-year-old son, Bert (a take-notice perf by Stephen Scott Scarpulla), and dumping his decapitated body into the Hudson River, Betty is hounded by a New York police detective (Paul Sparks) who could believe her guilty of any atrocity because she works in porn movies.
“What kind of human being allows herself to be treated in this way?” this outraged cop demands. “I hate you, baby.” As Crimmins was at the time, Betty is furious and hurt at being judged for her lifestyle.
For all the intensity Taylor brings to the character, Betty is not meant to be an articulate person; witness her forlorn expression as she scribbles her bottled notes and throws them over the railing of the ferry she takes to Nantucket to escape her tormenters. In her misery, Betty longs to speak to Rosalie, her sister and confidante, who was killed when that mad cyclist knocked her to the ground.
This being a John Guare fantasy, Rosalie makes a miraculous appearance — in a smashing turn by Sherie Rene Scott — to narrate the entire sorry sequence of events. In song, no less. Scott is one of those thesps who can do no wrong, and she is a radiant presence as the role model for a new, sexually liberated generation of women who thumb their noses at convention. Although Rosalie’s joie de vivre is not much help to Betty, Scott’s presence brightens the gloom of a joyless period.
For all the outlandish things they are called upon to do in this existential fantasy, Taylor, Scott and the rest of the well-cast thesps are perfectly safe under Greif’s sure-handed direction.