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Hats Off to John Guare

I’ll take Manhattan!

If you had to draw a picture of a New York playwright, you would probably draw someone like John Guare.  Guare was born on February 5, 1938. A New Yorker’s New Yorker, he has lived in Greenwich Village with his wife, Adele Chatfield-Taylor, for 43 years.  In his delightful piece in our very own Greenwich Village Stories, he wrote:  In 1953, for my fifteenth birthday, my parents took me to the Leonard Bernstein, Comden and Green musical Wonderful Town.  By the time the opening number — “Here we live, here we love, right in the heart of Greenwich Village” — was over, I knew my heart’s destination.”

He is quoted as saying that life in New York is a “complete addiction. Everyday it presents you with something for horror, amusement, despair, and…glee”  He grew up in the city. His theatrical career began at the Village’s legendary Caffé Cino in the 1960s, during the birth of off-off Broadway theater, the experimental movement that has developed into contemporary American drama. In 1968 Guare received the Obie for his play Muzeeka. By the early seventies, Guare’s work was playing off Broadway with The House of Blue Leaves (which won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best American Play) and playing on Broadway with a musical version of Two Gentlemen of Verona, for which he co-adapted the book with Mel Shapiro and Galt MacDermot and wrote the lyrics. It too won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as well the 1972 Tony Award for Best Musical. Originally conceived to play at the Delacourt Theater in Central Park, it opened there on July 22, 1971. It also toured the city’s parks and playgrounds with the New York Shakespeare Festival’s Mobile Theater and was so successful that it transferred to Broadway’s St. James Theater on December 1, 1971. Guare changed the setting from 16th century Italy to modern-day San Juan, Puerto Rico. It featured a multi-racial cast and critics responded very positively declaring “the madness, cheerfulness, and spontaneity of the play as a New York City block party that is not a spoof of Shakespeare but instead an updated version of the theme of love and friendship.” During this period Guare also collaborated with Milos Forman on the screenplay of the Czech director’s first American film, Taking Off, which received the Jury Prize at the Cannes Festival.

Although Guare’s plays take place at particular moments in time, they continue to feel contemporary. For example The House of Blue Leaves, which was re-mounted in 2011 on Broadway, deals with such contemporary issues as terrorism and PTSD. In the play a soldier gone AWOL hatches a secret domestic terrorism plot (in this case, to blow up the Pope). This almost accidental timeliness makes Guare’s plays evergreen.

Guare may best be known for his 1990 play, Six Degrees of Separation, which was subsequently made into a movie and has recently enjoyed a revival on Broadway. Original members of the cast remember John and their time spent on the production extremely fondly. He has a penchant for hanging out with the production and artistic team, sharing stories and making everyone laugh. Big hearted and generous, well dressed and always sporting a bow tie, John Guare is gentleman of the theater and we are proud to call him a Villager!

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