A Guide for the Perplexed
The 12th-century philosopher and theologian Maimonides wrote his Guide for the Perplexed believing he could sort out the ancient strife between religious doctrine and human reason. Reconciliation is a central concern in Johnson’s ambitious, strange new play as well. Its central figure, ex-convict Doug (Anderson), works mightily to leave his old forms of life behind as he’s confronted by his sister’s Glencoe household, riven by silent emotional war.
The play is at its best when its characters’ passions are most deeply submerged. An encounter between Doug and an eager female pen pal (Baker), for instance, becomes an awkward and weirdly evocative dance of inappropriate intimacies. As the wrecked, recessive suburban patriarch Phillip, Guinan, as usual, makes brilliance look easy. He skulks about his comfortable abode and repeats his obsessive mantra, “since I lost my job,” offering a hypnotic portrait of a man on a hopeless quest for himself.
But much of this Guide ends up merely perplexing, as Johnson spins out enough competing plot points to fuel a trilogy. Doug’s troubled relationship with his mother; his tormented, gay genius nephew’s struggles with bullying at school; Phillip’s failing marriage: All get touched upon but never fully explored. Instead, Doug’s attention, and the play’s, drifts from scene to scene. The impression of scattered focus is only heightened by Jeffrey Bauer’s ungainly rotisserie-stage design, rotating the actors back and forth from den to porch. Though Guide’s revelations don’t achieve their intended searing impact, the insistent sympathy with which Johnson probes his characters’ remoteness suggests a powerful work yet to be fully found.