Vaclav Havel's Point Is Sharpened to a Keen Edge In Comic 'Memorandum'

A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum: Jesse Terrill, left, Sasha Olinick and Alexander Strain in Vaclav Havel's timeless farce of bureaucracy gone mad,
A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum: Jesse Terrill, left, Sasha Olinick and Alexander Strain in Vaclav Havel's timeless farce of bureaucracy gone mad, "The Memorandum." (By Colin Hovde -- Forum Theatre)
By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, July 8, 2006

Welcome to clerical hell. The fluorescent light is harsh, the linoleum is soul-killingly ugly and the wall of file cabinets is a jumbled barricade. And that weirdly written memo on your desk -- it's like another language.

It, in fact, is another language, a synthetic new mode of communication designed to minimize human ambiguity and maximize efficiency. That's the setup of "The Memorandum," Czech playwright (and later Czech president) Vaclav Havel's 1965 missive from behind the Iron Curtain. It's a communist comedy, and in Michael Dove's tautly amusing production from Forum Theatre and Dance, it translates effortlessly to our suspicion-riddled "on-message" era.

"The Memorandum" timelessly posits that behind every authoritarian bureaucracy lie basic human impulses -- the hunger for power and the desperate need to cover one's tush. Politics, in other words. In this case, office politics, with the intrigue stirred up by the devilish Jan Ballas and his silent right-hand man, Ferdinand Pillar.

In this generic workplace, Ballas's rise is tied to the introduction of a new language, the mathematically driven Ptydepe (pronounced "Tie-DEPP-ay"). It's so complicated that almost no one can read it, and anyway, obtaining the authorization for a translation is impossible thanks to a classic case of Catch-22.

But Ballas, played by Alexander Strain with a blend of intimidating precision and sudden neediness that brings to mind the HAL 9000, seems to have things in hand. Soon Ballas has leapfrogged over his baffled boss, Josef Gross, a decent but overmatched chap who diminishes in Sasha Olinick's portrayal to a helpless, worried gaze.

The policy mandates and reversals become an absurd labyrinth as Havel meticulously sends up the results of a micromanaged pseudo-language and the clash of free will and cowardice unleashed in this oddball office. (A delightfully ominous touch: Each worker gets his own fire extinguisher.) Dove's production nicely manages the clockwork timing and peculiar pressures of the place. The comings and goings have the briskness of good farce, and the cast generally acts with a confident awareness that throws Gross's Kafkaesque confusion into sharp relief.

Rose McConnell is especially jaunty as Helena, who calls Gross "Sweetie" and playfully slaps him on the rump; Kate Debelack brushes her hair with just the right amount of ennui as a food-fetching secretary; Maggie Glauber quietly deploys Midwestern mousiness as a timid woman who takes a shine to Gross; and Patrick Bussink's annoyingly lighthearted translator effortlessly handles silly passages of Ptydepe.

Nobody's quite in Strain's league, though. Ballas is an inspired creation, simultaneously an emissary of totalitarianism and a conniving little weasel. He's the quintessential survivor, and Strain plays this not-quite-inhuman character like a man painstakingly laying a minefield and then desperately backtracking through it.

In short, Strain is as dark and blithe as the show. And by emphasizing the latter, Dove's production slips the knife in as it makes you smile.

The Memorandum, by Vaclav Havel. Translated by Vera Blackwell. Directed by Michael Dove. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Scenic design, Michael Dove, Paul Frydrychowski and Colin Hovde; lights, Paul Frydrychowski; sound design, Kenneth Gilbert. With Jesse Terrill, Colin Hovde, Brent Lowder and Jason Linkins. Through July 23 at the H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE. Visit

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