Based on the experiences of three real-life exiled artists, John Guare’s 3 Kinds of Exile, currently premiering at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater on West 20th Street in Manhattan, isn’t just one play but, rather, three – all thematically related, to be sure, but still so distinctly different from one another, not only in content but in form, that one still might question whether the theater-going public might not have been better served had Mr. Guare expanded one of the three into a full length production and presented just that one. Karel, based on the life of the exiled Czech filmmaker Karel Reisz, is a monologue. Elzbieta Erased, predicated on the life of the Polish actress Elzbieta Czyzewska, is a two-hander. And Funiage, inspired by the life and works of the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, is antically Brechtian in nature. As presented, they do provide enough entertainment to keep an audience engaged for 100 minutes without an intermission, but I think I would have preferred to have seen any one of them alone, had it only been developed into a full-fledged production of its own.
Karel, a forceful, yet touching, soliloquy, is effectively delivered by Martin Moran. As played by Moran, Reisz was a tortured soul suffering from a debilitating ailment that was none the less severe for its probably having been psychosomatic, resulting from childhood traumas associated with his forced exile from Eastern Europe to London. (Note: Karel’s somewhat surprising climax might have been more effective if a similar ploy hadn’t been used to greater effect in Sharr White’s The Other Place just two years ago.)
Elzbieta Erased is something quite different: a delightful two-hander in which Guare makes his acting debut, playing opposite the exceptionally talented Omar Sangare. Sangare and Guare alternate in their depictions of Elzbieta Czyzewska and a variety of characters in her life (ranging from David Halberstam to Guare himself) and they play off one another as if they had been doing so for years. Sangare is a remarkable performer and it was more than courageous of Guare to play opposite him in his own acting debut. But while Sangare set the bar very high, Guare was up to the challenge.
There is an old saying that goes something like this: “You’re born, you marry, and you die. I’ve been born and I’ve married. Now there’s nothing left for me to do but die.” The conceit behind Funiage plays on that idea (the artificial term “funiage” itself conflating the concepts of funereal and marriage rites). David Pittu stars as Witold Gombrowicz in this final segment of the play, ricocheting between the realistic and the surrealistic in virtually Brechtian fashion. In this exercise, he is ably supported by eight other cast members (including Moran and Sangare).
And what is one to make of it all? Well, I think that all that Guare meant to express was that one man’s meat really can be another man’s poison. Exile, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad but depends upon the individuals and circumstances involved. Karel focused on the tragic effects on a child’s psyche of his having been forced into exile, even years or decades after the initial event. In contrast, both Elzbieta Erased and Funiage reflected the consequences of voluntary self-exile rather than forced exile but the consequences in those two cases still couldn’t have been more disparate. In Elzbieta Erased, an entire life was destroyed as a result of exile, despite the fact that that exile was voluntarily undertaken, as Elzbieta Czyzewska, a star in her native Poland, left her glory days behind her when she emigrated to the US, never again achieving anywhere near the success she had realized in her native land. And in Funiage, we witnessed the flip side of Exbita Erased: for Witold Gombrowicz, unlike Elzbieta Czyzewska, his voluntary exile led to a new beginning and a successful life that far outshone the life he left behind in Poland.