Why write about Cupid asleep when you’ve got Bosnia, Northern Ireland, the Middle East?” asks a frustrated student during John Guare’s delightful and also touching closing contribution to the seven-work theatrical compilation that is “Love’s Fire.” The answer is self-evident from this venture as a whole: As knotted as they often are, Shakespeare’s sonnets constitute a defining anthology of thoughts on lust and loss and, indeed, “love’s fire.” And if that fire here sometimes burns with a distinctly cool flame, the enterprise remains no less fascinating for it: The Acting Co. could have a small hit on its hands when Mark Lamos’ uneven but ultimately winning production transfers in several weeks from its present touring date at the Barbican to the Joseph Papp Public Theatre Off Broadway.
Certainly, New York audiences will be more interested than London ones (if a thinly attended holiday weekend matinee was any gauge) in the diverse responses of seven American playwrights — three Pulitzer Prize winners among them — to the poems’ challenges. Some, like Tony Kushner, integrate the given sonnet directly into the play, in Kushner’s case an encounter between a gay patient (played by Stephen DeRosa) and his lesbian shrink (Erika Rolfsrud) that would seem Woody Allen-esque if Allen ever wrote gay characters. (A hilarious debate prompted by the word “homophony” suggests Harold Pinter at his most antic, in plays like “The Hothouse.”) Kushner’s own singular wit is in evidence, too, not least in a protestation (“I’m not a homosexual; I can’t be; I have no talent to be”) that could have come from the lips of this writer’s no less fevered Roy Cohn.
Ntozake Shange, in turn, uses Sonnet 128 to animate a dance piece for Lisa Tharps and Jason Alan Carvell whose title, “Hydraulics Phat Like Mean,” is the most intriguing thing about it. And while Marsha Norman finds in Sonnet 140 an eerily charged anatomy of desire (its refrain is “undo this”), William Finn turns the worry that Sonnet 102’s speaker is “dull(ing) you with my song” into a four-minute song propelled by its own anxieties — namely, artist DeRosa’s difficulties capturing lover Carvell on canvas.
The tone of the opening play, from Eric Bogosian, is encapsulated in its title, “Bitter Sauce.” Bride-to-be Heather Robison — a wannabe Joan Cusack from “In & Out” — and fiance Daniel Pearce have their impending nuptials jolted by the appearance of her Hell’s Angel lover, a leather-clad bruiser named Red who is exactly the bit of rough that Pearce’s self-described “nothing” will never be. The conclusion may be fairly acrid, but so is that of its source material: “But thence I learn, and find the lesson true/Drugs poison him that so fell sick of you.”
The occasion’s true surprises arrive after intermission, even if the meaning of Michael Yeargan’s off-putting and cold set never does. (Why the black horse?) “Waiting for Philip Glass” presents Wendy Wasserstein in uncharacteristically (and commendably) tart mode, skewering Tom Wolfe-style — a “Bonfire of the Vanities”-like reference to the South Bronx included — the sort of arid East Coast chic whose venom extends well beyond blatantly meaningless air kisses.
As benefit guests recite one another’s pedigrees and credentials, Wasserstein takes a scalpel to a particular kind of American chill that the play itself casts: If, as she has mentioned, Wasserstein intends to expand the piece, the task will be keeping our interest in a community that forsook its heart on the way to the Hamptons. (The play’s title was especially apt in London during an opening week that found Glass and Robert Wilson upstairs at the Barbican with their multimedia piece, “Monsters of Grace.”)
Guare’s play, “The General of Hot Desire,” is both last and longest, and begins as one of those treatises on writing-about-the-impossibility-of-writing that fuel many an English major’s career. But once his students put aside their Cliff Notes, Guare moves to a more fanciful plain, enacting as a play-within-a-play the expulsion of the Biblical first family into a world whose closest contemporary equivalent to Eden — or so Guare argues — can be found in words.
The most moving play of the septet, it derives its appeal not only from the apparent affection toward it of a young and fresh-faced cast who aren’t always up to the demands posed elsewhere. The sonnet, we’re told, is an audition for God that marks man’s “only defense against (His) silence.” All of which means that a play in response to art ends with a definition of it, accompanied by a bracing blast of Bach to leave a suddenly teary-eyed audience defenseless.