EMIGRES, by Slawomir Mrozek; directed by Livlu Ciulel; scenery by Santo Loquasto; costumes by Mary Anne Powell; lighting by Roger Milliken.
With Stanley Anderson and Richard Bauer.
At Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater through June 8.
In years to come, when accomplished actors are asked which of the great roles they still yearn to play, don't be surprised to hear, after the obligatory Lear or Volpone or Willy Loman, the names "XX" and "AA."
That's the entire cast of characters of "Emigres," which opened last night at Arena Stage, and as acted by Stanley Anderson and Richard Bauer, XX and AA add up to an unusually funny, affecting and offbeat evening in the theater. These two fine actors and veteran members of the Arena company have probably never had any meatier parts, and Arena has probably never offered a more expert tandem performance.
Like XX and AA, Slawomir Mrozek, their creator, is a Polish emigre trying to carve out a little freedom in a foreign land -- France in his case, West Germany in theirs. He has obviously found more fulfilment than the intellectual AA, who scarcely ever leaves his bed in a basement hovel and has been preparing for years to write a book he will never even start. But Mrozek presumably harbors, nevertheless, some of AA's fear that the expatriate artist has simply substituted a self-defined imprisonment for a state-imposed one.
AA shares his dingy nest with XX, who left the homeland in search of material rather than intellectual liberty, but who stands his hard-earned money away and seems just as lost as his roommate. Together, they represent the driving force of 20th-century history -- the urge to freedom, with only the dimmest notion of what to do with it once it's in hand. In their love-hate-indifference relationship, AA and XX fumble awkwardly but eloquently toward a time when they will no longer be divided, when the intellectual and the worker will each find satifaction in a common society with common aims (or when, perhaps, they will be one and the same human being).
That's the long way to describe Mrozek's play. But if anyone is still reading this, there's a short way too, and it may be a bit more inviting. "Emigres" is "The Odd Couple" with an Eastern European accent.
AA and XX are not simply fastidious ad sloppy, like Oscar and Felix. But one talks in polysyllables and the other in slurred proletarian slang, one pays the rent while the other always overdue, and one keeps a regular supply of tea and sugar while the other rifles it behind his back. And their spats are loud and funny and true.
"I'm going to lose my temper!" Bauer (as AA) warns at one point. ". . . Do you realize that I just lost my temper?"
"When?" asks Anderson (as XX).
"A moment ago," replies Bauer.
Bauer is in the temper-losing business often in this play, and he is a master at it, darting his eyes from side to side, clutching his hair and storming about the stage. He has the more flamboyant role and plays it to the hilt, but Anderson is a great deal more than a straight man to Bauer's cavorting. In the play's unexpected and riveting final scene, he is particularly effective.
"Emigres" will not be a play to everyone' taste. Some will find it talky (and it is, literally, that), while others will find its surrealist favor hard to take. Beyond these problems of adjustment, there are times when the play simply loses focus, when its scenes and events seem to disconnect and frivolous and even two terrific performances are not enough to keep the audience's attention from wandering.
But even this, "Emigres" is an intriguing glimpse into Eastern European theater and the mind of a lively translation (for which three people share credit) and the sure hand of Romanian director Liviu Ciulei, the Arena Production has the feel of something simultaneously original and authentic.