This review was corrected on May 15, 2002.
The central characters may be Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant, but the playwright is John Guare, so “A Few Stout Individuals” is certainly not a play in which important historical personages stand around orating importantly. Guare has always been more interested in the savage undertow of American success, in the belly flops that plague the lives of big dreamers. Accordingly, in this muddled but engagingly staged whimsy about the ignominious latter days of an American icon, the great Grant is not shown triumphantly leading his troops to victory or reigning over a permanently unified country. Instead, we discover him as a decrepit, drugged and dying man at the mercy of a mercenary family desperate to leverage his legacy for lucre. The apposite epigraph, courtesy of Guare’s Mr. Twain, arrives in act two: “America is the ultimate democracy. Anyone can end up in the gutter.”
The year is 1885, and Grant’s glorious reputation as a war hero and dignified former president has just evaporated in a financial scandal. Through the shady machinations of his son’s business partner, Grant’s fortune has been wiped out, as have the investments of numerous innocents who’d signed up on the strength of his illustrious name. Grant has delivered all the treasured mementos of his history to a Vanderbilt, to whom he owes $150,000. The walls of his faded townhouse, grittily rendered by set designer Allen Moyer, show the bright squares of silk where pictures used to hang.
Samuel Clemens has come to the rescue, hatching a scheme to publish Grant’s memoirs and restore the family fortunes, as well as return some luster to Grant’s tarnished reputation. There’s just one problem: Grant is barely cognizant of his surroundings, and attempts by his adoring, dithering wife (Polly Holliday) and his protege Adam Badeau to elicit the requisite recollections are foundering. A description of Grant’s first meeting with the love of his life has been rendered in lushly perfumed prose that brings a suspiciously beatific smile to the face of his wife, its actual author, as Clemens deduces.
The situation has a mordant comic appeal, and Guare presents it in brazen, near farcical terms. In his idiosyncratic vision, the spectacle of a great man brought low is not so much pitiful as absurd. Clemens (William Sadler) is growing exasperated and desperate, while Mrs. G, endearingly played by Holliday, doles out cannabis, morphine and cocaine in the hopes of stoking the fires of memory. Money must be borrowed from Clemens to buy cocaine, brandy and even ice cream.
Whipping in and out of the room are the Grants’ variously ill-starred children, the good-hearted Fred (T.J. Kenneally), who has been dipping into daddy’s drug supply; the social-climbing Nell (Amy Hohn), who is most mortified at the social ramifications of papa’s financial collapse; and the clueless Buck, (Mark Fish), who got everybody into this mess.
The great general remains oblivious to the chaos surrounding him and communicates only with the vision of the Emperor of Japan and his wife (James Yaegashi and Michi Barall), comforting apparitions who bring him back to the happiest encounter of his life, when, as president, he was the first Westerner to be honored with a handshake from the Emperor.
Director Michael Greif keeps the pacing of the first act buoyant, and performances of the cast are often deeply pleasurable, particularly Holiday’s determined but addled Mrs. G and the contrastingly calm Grant of Donald Moffat, who brings a beautiful sense of wounded pride and sad bemusement to his performance as the disgraced icon. Sadler is convincing as the mildly irascible Clemens. The supporting roles, too, are crisply played.
But what the play really requires is not so much a director as an editor — perhaps several. Having established an intriguing comic situation in the opening minutes, and populated the stage with effectively drawn characters, Guare spends the next two hours failing to develop his promising material to much satisfying effect.
The first act spins its wheels for long stretches, repeating jokes and even already-established information. And a sense of desperation gradually takes over in act two, as the play veers between labored farce — typified by the bewildering arrival of opera diva Adelina Patti, who serenades the general with “Last Rose of Summer” — and more serious ruminations on the death of Clemens’ son and the atrocities of Cold Harbor, the decisive but costly battle of the Civil War in which thousands of Union soldiers under Grant’s command were killed.
The problem is one of focus: Guare seems distracted, by too much collateral history and period color, from concentrating on any of the intriguing themes that percolate underneath the frantic activity of the play’s surface.
There is much funny material satirizing the then-new cult of celebrity that would metastasize over the next century (a late-breaking gambit finds the family ready to uproot itself so that Grant can die in Nantucket, which has paid for the privilege). The tussle over Cold Harbor is presumably meant as soberly ironic commentary on the sugarcoating and obfuscation that goes into the creation of a historical icon.
There are some provocative ruminations on the elusive nature of memory itself (“Is this what memory is?” asks Grant. “This rotten taste in my mouth?”), and on the thirst for immortality that seems to be part of the genetic material of even the most undistinguished of human beings.
But Guare never settles long enough on any of its ideas to develop them fully or memorably, choosing instead to up the antic ante pointlessly. The finale — in which the Emperor, masquerading as Vanderbilt, plays the deus ex machina — recounts the saga’s actual happy ending.
The memoirs were written and broke all sales records. Guare quotes several assessments describing the book’s prose as “perfect in concision and clearness” and “possessing … the high merit of saying clearly in the fewest possible words what has to be said.” Alas, there’s little risk that Guare’s ambitious but unwieldy play will ever be immortalized in similar language.