Emigres -- At the Kreeger through June 8.
Not since Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" have two characters who never do anything -- who obviously will never do anything -- so dominated a stage with comic profoundity as those in "Emigres," at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theatre.
Written by Slawomir Mrozek, whose complicted relationship with his native Poland has included voluntary exile, cultural oblivion, the revoking of his citizenship, the restoration of his citzenship, and now a revival of cultural ties, "Emigres" is a highly sophisticated political play. It is not the Good Guys-Bad Authorities stuff that you get when Tom Stoppard, for example, looks at Eastern Europe and sees only small, warm human beings being stifled by huge, inhuman totalitarian regimes.
"If we all want the same thing, what is there that's stopping us?" one emigre, representing the quintessential intellectual, asks the other, the quintessential working man. Mrozek looks for the answer within human nature, as well as in outside circumstances. The dreams of freedom, for one, and of economic betterment for the other, are built to self-destruct. It's the boundlessness of their own yearnings, rather than state-enforced boundaries, that will ultimately prevent them from finding what they've given up their homes to pursue.
The production is brilliantly directed by Liviu Ciulei and acted by Richard Bauer, as the nervous intellectual political exile, and Stanley Anderson, as the plodding worker who has gone abroad to make and save money to improve his life on his return home. The variety of tones, moods and approaches they put into two and a half hours of talk on one subject by two archetypical characters is astounding.
"Two foreign bodies in an otherwise healthy organism," they share a poor basement apartment in a West German townhouse where a comfortable New Year's Eve party is going n above. (Countries are never mentioned by name and the characters are called XX and AA, which seems to be a rather dated affectation.) They squabble over who gets the one cup of tea that was made before the water went off; they hide their meager belongings from each other.
Each belittles the other's reason forleaving home. They score unexpected points off each other in their endless arguments. The worker charges that what the thinker really hated was being treated as his equal, and points out that "thinking about thinking" is what the village idiot does at home, for lack of anything else to think about. The other points out that never disobeying the rules doesn't protect one from official wrath. He could denounce his roommate anonymously for the crime of having associated with himself. And anyway, he demonstrates, the worker's inability to speak the language of exile has led him to purchase dogfood for his dinner.
The thinker, who does speak the language, could leave the apartment, write the book he plans on human imprisonment, take part in the world above. The worker could take his money and go home to the land and family he misses. But they don't. The one can't start working and the other can't stop.
Nor can they stop arguing, although they will never understand each other. But -- "two people from the same country can talk." Never mind that they are now living in a country offering the opportunities they have sought. When the sound of sirens above suggests that their house may be on fire, they don't leave. As foreigners, that does not concern them.