At 17, Sabina Lozovsky delivered a lovesick monologue from "Anna Karenina" as her audition piece for the Vakhtangov Theater School in Moscow. By the end, she says, "I was crying and the whole room was crying, but they were crying because they thought it was so funny . . . this little girl with the bangs and the freckles crying about her lover." Fortunately, they were impressed as well as amused, and they accepted her.
And she turned them down. "At this time," she says, "I was madly in love with some boy. And this boy didn't want his wife to be an actress. He said, 'You know the only thing they do in the theater, don't you? They don't act. They make love.' "
That was the first time Lozovsky's theatrical career seemed to have reached a dead end. The second time was in April 1978, when she and her husband, a scientist and political dissident, left the Soviet Union, bound for the United States. By then, Lozovsky had split up with her boyfriend, enrolled at the Vakhtangov school, married, and launched her directing career with productions of "Hamlet," "The Cherry Orchard" and "The Importance of Being Earnest," among other plays.
"I came to this country with the idea that theater is finished," she says, sitting in the downstairs library of her Silver Spring home, surrounded by Russian literature but otherwise looking well-assimilated in a black blouse and a white skirt. Three years after their arrival here, she and her husband own two cars, hang out in Georgetown on the weekends, and apologize for the failure of the central air-conditioning to meet the challenge of a day in the 90s.
Their adjustment has been so successful, in fact, that Lozovsky has begun to resume the career she thought she had abandoned. In October, her staging of Nikolai Gogol's "The Inspector General" is slated to open the Source Theatre's fall season. For a tuneup exercise, she is directing Gogol's "The Marriage," playing at The Vault.
This is a brand of shoestring-theater -- after-hours but aspiring to professionalism -- that doesn't exist in the Soviet Union. Soviet theater is either thoroughly amateur or thoroughly professional, and to enter the latter you must go through a highly elaborate and competitive training program.
When she entered the Vakhtangov school as a directing student in 1969, she became one of 10 students in a program the school initiates only once every four years. And she learned an approach to directing plays that is much more formal and premeditated than the usual American practice. In the Soviet Union, a production begins with a "directing plan" -- a written prospectus that explores both the theoretical and practical problems posed by the play.
Students of directing draft plans for hypothetical as well as actual productions, and those plans become credentials that graduating students use in the search for employment. Although they may be loaned out occasionally, all stage directors, like actors, designers and technicians, are on salary to a particular theater (or, in Lozovsky's case, the Vakhtangov school itself, where she became a teacher of directing and acting).
Lozovsky also directed plays at an assortment of Moscow theaters, including the legendary Moscow Art Theater. Like most young Soviet directors, she concentrated on the classics. Getting official approval for a new play, she explains, tends to be a delicate task requiring the clout that goes with age and experience.
When "A Streetcar Named Desire" was produced several years ago in Moscow, it ran into official opposition. The problem, as Lozovsky reconstructs it, had to do with the last scene, in which Blanche Dubois is hauled off to an asylum. "They didn't want to end this play with this complete brutality winning the case," Lozovsky explains. "Because in this play you can't blame capitalistic society. Stanley Kowalski is a poor man. He's a laborer, and somebody there among the authorities understood that."
Not wishing to tamper with Tennessee Williams' text, the director decided to add a visually uplifting final note. Instead of letting the men in white coats escort Blanche away, he had Mitch, her thin-willed beau, carry her upstairs toward (as the scenery suggested) the heavens. With this heroic and affirmative -- and quite unexpected -- amendment, the authorities withdrew their objections and the production went ahead. After all, says Lozovsky, Mitch is "another working boy."
Lozovsky inherited her love of the theater from her mother, who had acted in the Yiddish theater until 1949, when the government closed it. This was the time of Stalin's campaign against "cosmopolitanism" -- a phrase applied mainly to Jews who made a point of their Jewishness. (Lozovsky's mother never acted again in the Soviet Union, but since following her daughter and son-in-law to the United States, she has begun to do Yiddish readings and recitals on the West Coast.)
In the Soviet Union, Lozovsky's husband, David, ran the bio-chemical laboratory of the Institute of Psychiatry of the Academy of Medical Sciences, and his dissident political views compounded the problems of being a Soviet Jew. "Being a physician," he explains, "I was involved in helping dissidents, in helping refusedniks." He distributed underground literature and set up meetings between dissidents and foreign scientists, he says. Like his wife, he had thought about the possibility of emigrating ever since the regime began allowing it in the late '60s. But it was only in 1975 -- when the KGB began interviewing his colleagues about him, and his trip to a scientific congress in the United States was vetoed at the last minute -- that they made up their minds.
It took them seven months to get their exit visas, and David Lozovsky used the time to inquire, discreetly, about job possibilities at the National Institute of Mental Health. In April 1978, the Lozovskys left Russia, taking their cat and the maximum $262 in cash.
When they arrived here, they settled in Langley Park, and David Lozovsky reported for work at NIMH. Sabina Lozovsky spent her first days in the United States adjusting to such things as shopping centers and the emphasis on personal space.
After two weeks, she had had it with being a housewife. "I decided that I needed a job, so I thought there's one thing that I most probably can do and most probably would enjoy -- selling." Her job-hunting technique was to walk down Connecticut Avenue from Dupont Circle, looking for a "pretty window." In a few hours, she was hired by a leather goods store.
After four months, she met the head of the Actors Stage Studio, a now-defunct acting school on Connecticut Avenue, and went to work there as a teacher. When the school folded, Lozovsky took over the drama program at the Jewish Community Center in Bethesda, where she taught and directed plays. She is now a writer/translator for Voice of America.
The Lozovskys have tried to see as much theater as possible -- in both Washington and New York. "The general level was lower than I expected," Sabina Lozovsky says, "but the musical productions were outstanding." "Sweeney Todd," "Children of a Lesser God" and "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" are three of her American favorites.
She likes American audiences, too -- up to a point. There are certain informalities she hasn't quite adjusted to. For instance, our relative tolerance for latecomers. In Moscow, a latecomer would only be allowed to take a seat "up up up high" -- and even at that, only during a break in the action on stage. Imagine.