Any émigré knows that exile comes in many varieties. Forced or self-imposed, physical or imaginative, for a host of reasons, from political to cultural, exile is also shaped by its historical and geopolitical contexts, as well as by the social and economic frameworks prevailing in the new locale. Don’t be fooled into thinking that 3 Kinds of Exile explores any of these situations, however. In John Guare’s new play, performed by the Atlantic Theater Company, “kind” is apparently synonymous with “stories,” so closely do the three expatriations he describes resemble each other, in history and geography (involving mid-20th century Poles and Slovaks), materiality and agency (embarking on real but involuntary emigrations).
Exile is a deeply rich topic and typically a serious one, so it feels like a put-on at our expense that this show is a gag from the get-go, with Guare as our facetious sometime Master of Ceremonies. His Exile consists of three tales, which gain, thankfully, in complexity. Part One, “Karel,” is a terribly obvious cautionary tale that dabbles in psychological horror, lavishly acted by Martin Moran with a wink and a nod. The segment could be excised from the production at no loss whatsoever.
Guare makes his entrance in the second part, “Elzbieta Erased,” where he shares the stage with the reptilian Omar Sangare. Of Malian and Polish descent, Sangare probably knows a thing or two about exile but he is merely Guare’s slick sidekick to recount, in Polish if you please, the life of the actress Elzbieta Czyzewska. She was a legendary beauty of Warsaw cinema who made the evident mistake, as interpreted by Guare, of marrying the New York Times correspondent David Halberstam and trading fame and adulation in her native Polska for the mean streets and ignominious anonymity of New York City once her marriage had dissolved.
Guare has said he wished to remember his friends “Karel” and Elzbieta by writing these pieces, but memorials are static affairs, and these short plays are no exception. Certainly, as depicted by Guare, the actress’s exile is an intriguing series of near-misses with fame, and once even with death, all of which she apparently endured with a distinctly Polish sense of tragedy rolled into indomitability, of no more consequence for her than the haze of the cigarillos she chain-smoked. Her life and persona sound profoundly theatrical, yet Guare and Sangare’s conference, delivered from behind matching lecterns in front of a huge portrait of the actress, in a contrived repartee, is impossibly anti-theatrical.
The production finally takes on some weight in the final act, “Funiage,” which is a tribute to the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz. Unfortunately, this is where one might have appreciated a little more of Guare’s wit beyond the wordplay of the title (what do you call a marriage and a funeral on the same day? cue canned laughter). Gombrowicz was an absurdist writer who celebrated immaturity, in his revelatory novel Ferdydurke, in particular, which earned him scorn and humiliation in his homeland. As luck would have it, brighter horizons were waiting when he boarded an ocean liner to Argentina in 1939 on the eve of the German invasion. He never returned to Poland, though not necessarily for the reasons Guare, who fancies him being swept away by the pasión of the tango, supposes.
Whatever director Neil Pepe was doing, or not doing, in the first and second acts of Exiles, his direction is all over the third, clothing Guare’s story in a Weimar cabaret aesthetic. The Atlantic Theater’s cast is tight and controlled but too much so; their dark suits, bowlers and cadenced movements offer a very conventional homage to Gombrowicz’s zest for the unconventional, inchoate, and chaotic. Nevertheless, David Pittu adds some grit and poetry as the writer on the cusp of his new life, and lends some sense to Gombrowicz’s own observation, in Ferdydurke: “Against the background of general freakishness, the case of my particular freakishness was lost.”
Gombrowicz mused from his exile that the condition of displacement is essential to the work of any self-respecting artist. I would agree that the persistent tension between loss and discovery that informs the exilic condition leads to a singular experience of questioning, and awakening to, the mysteries of the self. Regrettably, none of Guare’s flip portraits grasps at this possibility. Such is his prerogative as an artist himself, but that explanation in no way lessens the disappointment of these depthless “exiles.”