At a pivotal moment, “Gypsies” — a play from Hungary visiting as an offshoot of the Kennedy Center’s music-centered “Budapest, Prague and Vienna” festival — turns into Central Europe’s answer to “Weekend at Bernie’s,” the movie about two guys who drag around their boss’s corpse. The body of the patriarch of a Romany family is propped up on a table while his survivors set about treating it as if it’s an honored guest, feeding it, sticking a cigarette in its mouth.
“He’s as heavy as a dead sheep,” declares the corpse’s son-in-law (Tamas Keresztes) as the old man’s widow (Agi Szirtes) and daughter (Anna Palmai) wail and shriek. Soon a government representative for Romany interests (Zoltan Bezeredi) arrives, spewing venom about his constituents before dashing off.
“Keep up the good works!” a member of the grieving clan shouts after him.
So goes the absurdist mayhem of “Gypsies,” an often raucous and occasionally mystifying taste of modern Hungarian drama, from Budapest’s Katona Jozsef Theatre. Attempting, it seems, to illuminate in some sardonic fashion the perpetual alien status of the Romany, also known as gypsies, in Hungarian society, the play is a rather strained and meandering affair. From the standpoint of an American viewing, the piece would have benefited from some additional cultural context.
The first act, as directed by Gabor Mate, is taken from a 1931 play of the same title by Jeno J. Tersanszky. A blend of soap and Chekhov, it recounts the efforts of the Harkocsanys to compel a musician played by Keresztes to marry their daughter, Palmai’s Szidike. (The production, in Hungarian, projects English translations onto two panels flanking the Eisenhower Theater stage.)
Act 2, by Krisztian Grecso, appropriates Tersanszky’s characters, propelling them into the present and finishing the tale of the murder of Mr. Harkocsany (Laszlo Szacsvay) as a farcical sendup of the system’s callous ineptitude toward Romany matters.
It’s enacted on Balazs Cziegler’s malleable white set, employed most intriguingly as a canvas for an effect allowing rivulets of what look like blood to slowly trickle down the walls. Mate’s 17-member ensemble is uniformly forceful — and its crisp style of curtain call is endearing — but you wish the histrionics of “Gypsies” coalesced into a more compelling whole. The lack of one may explain why, alas, many playgoers at Thursday’s performance didn’t last past intermission.
by Jeno J. Tersanszky and Krisztian Grecso. Directed by Gabor Mate. Costumes, Anni Fuzer; lighting, Jozsef Peto; sound, Attila Pokorny; music, Laszlo Sary; choreography, Peter Takatsy. About 2½ hours. Through Saturday at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Visit www.kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600.