A Quirky Jewel

posted by Michael Paller, A.C.T. Dramaturg

Working on Rich and Famous by John Guare is like recovering a lost jewel. A many-faceted and quirky jewel, but a jewel. It was produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1976 after an earlier version was performed at the Academy Festival Theatre in Chicago and the Williamstown Theatre in 1974. It had a subsequent production in 1977 at Trinity Repertory in Providence, then—silence. Nothing. Since then, there’s been no major production of this play until now.

It’s hard to know why some plays succeed in finding an audience the first time out and others have to wait for another moment. Some plays are presented by the wrong people—producers, directors, actors—some for an audience not attuned to the playwright’s wavelength. Sometimes, the story the playwright’s telling is ahead of the audience’s sensibilities when it comes to form or content.

For whatever reason this play by one of America’s most consistently inventive and theatrical playwrights disappeared, it now seems amazingly prescient. The story of an artist aspiring to be rich and famous rings truer now than ever. You can’t turn on the television without running across people so desperate for fame and glory that they’ll risk humiliation before millions of viewers displaying their—often meager—talents as singers, dancers, comedians, race-runners, cooks, entrepreneurs. Magazines and the internet are awash in the latest faux-news of the celebrity of the minute, tidbits devoured by fans equally anxious to have some, any, connection with these demi-gods, and who often harbor their own dreams of transformation. It’s the American dream, of course, to become whatever you want to be, and it seems that so often that something has to do with more: more money, more fame, more adulation, more anything to satisfy that desire in us to be bigger, better, more loved than we are. Nor does it seem to matter when we learn that even the successful American idols among us are no happier and possess no more self-wisdom than we non-rich, non-famous worshipers do, and sometimes considerably less. For their part, these celebrities discover that they’re the victims of their own success, and that whatever dignity or privacy they once were entitled to have vanished like a dream and that they’re now in the thrall of a pop culture machine over which they have little or no control. Somehow, even this doesn’t stop us from wanting to be them. This is the landscape of Rich and Famous and because it’s by John Guare, it’s hilarious, probing, and sobering all at once.

One of the great things about having a theater and a training program under one roof is the chance for our M.F.A. acting students to meet, talk to, and learn from our visiting artists. It was wonderful to sit in on the hour they spent with John on Monday morning. He told them how important it is that they not wait for a career to happen to them. Go out and make your own, he told them, find the people you want to collaborate with—beginning with your colleagues from school. When he was asked what kind of actor he likes to work with, he talked about actors who are unafraid to take big risks, make huge choices, who don’t stand there waiting for the director or playwright to tell them what to do, actors who put their imaginations to work in the service of the play and who know how to play: just the kind of actors we hope to train at A.C.T.

The cast of Rich and Famous matches this description perfectly. It’s been a privilege to watch them and their director, John Rando, as they’ve leapt fearlessly and joyfully into the world of Rich and Famous, which is surreal and wild one moment, quiet and touching the next, full of fury the next. It’s been wonderful to watch John Guare, who’s been here for many rehearsals and previews, revisit the play for the first time in 33 years, honoring what he wrote then but also adding some new things, peeling away some old things, then peeling away some of the new things, listening to the actors, listening to the play on the stage and the play in his head, 33 years old, brand new. He inspires us all.

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