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BOSOMS AND NEGLECT.

(COMEDY REVIVAL; SIGNATURE THEATER CO.; 160 SEATS; $37.50 TOP)

NEW YORK A Signature Theater Co. presentation of a play in two acts by John Guam. Directed by Nicholas Martin. Set, James Noone; costumes, Gail Brassard; lighting, Frances Aronson; sound, Red Ramona; fight direction, Rick Sordelet; production stage manager, Bess Marie Glorioso. Opened Dec. 13, 1998. Reviewed Dec. 9. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.
Henny          Mary Louise Wilson
Scooper         David Aaron Baker
Deirdre            Katie Finneran


Even 20 years and many stylistic adventures after its debut, John Guare's "Bosoms and Neglect" is a startling, odd play. Nicholas Martin's new production at the Signature Theater Co., the second offering in the company's Guare season, doesn't really find its footing until the second act, when this discursive, almost demented spoof of the psychiatric and bibliomaniacal obsessions of a couple of New York neurotics darkens into a brooding, though no less comic, exploration of such fixations' festering roots. But when it finally does, charged by a blisteringly funny performance from Mary Louise Wilson, the mad scribblings of a gifted playwright firing on all pistons suddenly coalesce into a shattering image of human suffering and isolation, and the play etches itself woundingly, and lastingly, on the heart as well as the funny bone.

It's hard to imagine that this surreal black comedy was ever considered commercial material, even two decades ago, when Broadway was still a vestigially accommodating place for new plays. (It flopped quickly in '79.) A prologue sets the morbid comic tone, as the blind, aged Henny (Wilson), wailing that her bladder has fallen out, exposes to her horrified son Scooper (David Aaron Baker) another little physical problem, a visibly cancerous breast.

From there, things start to get weird, as Scooper and a new friend named Deirdre (Katie Finneran) hole up in her apartment on the morning of Henny's operation and begin a sort of anxiety fox-trot, floridly exposing their affection for their mutual psychiatrist, Dr. James, who's left them in the lurch to go on vacation, and rhapsodizing about their favorite neglected books, which they both fetishize.

This distended scene probably played better in 1979 (without the additions for a 1986 revival that are retained here and add to the overwritten feeling). Back then therapy-speak and the preening, competitive pride of the analyzed were fresher cultural touchstones. Deirdre's dismay at learning that Scooper is merely in thrice-a-week therapy and not bona fide analysis still raises a chuckle, but two more decades of Woody Allen's therapeutic excursions have taken their toll on this subject. Guare's vision is always original, but his writing can be maddeningly diffuse.

And Martin's direction never works up the right antic, intense tone that the elaborate and stylized dialogue requires. Finneran and Baker are admirably funny throughout, but don't seem altogether at ease with the roller-coaster emotional and linguistic high-wire acts the play demands. (James Noone's vibrantly colored and attractive set seems too Martha Stewart-pretty and naturalistic, as well.)

The first act ends with Deirdre and Scooper, after a violent climax, locating the nexus of their anxieties in their relationships with their parents (surprise!). In act two, Scooper's in the hospital with mom, trying to get to the tangled bottom of his frustrating relationships with women, which he traces to his mother's reluctance to share her emotional history with him.

"Sores are not sins," Scooper says, admonishing his mother for not telling him about her cancer for two years, but the playwright knows well the intimate and twisted connections we fashion between our bodies and our self-images, between pain and guilt, between love and hate.

Henny's smothering affection for her son is always tinged with contempt for him, for example -- and it's driving him crazy. The deadpan emotional authenticity and biting comic timing Wilson brings to her role gives an electric charge to this far superior act, and her marvelous performance is matched by fine work from the alternately frantic and morose Baker.

Henny is a woman who let her shame and pain literally eat away at her because she simply didn't know what to do with it, while her son's efforts to grapple with his own legacy of sadness are no less successful for all his time on the couch.

The play ends with an image as brutally ironic as it is sad, as Wilson delivers with blunt, harrowing simplicity a monologue that establishes Scooper's tormenting dreams as a more terrible reality. The cleansing, corrosive truth finally comes out, but it's into a loveless void.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:ISHERWOOD, CHARLES
Publication:Variety
Article Type:Theater Review
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Dec 21, 1998
Words:748
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