Would we be interested in Vaclav Havel's plays if he hadn't become president of Czechoslovakia? The answer is yes, we should be -- but carefully, cautiously and with full awareness of just how far away Eastern Europe is.
The uneven production of Havel's "Largo Desolato" at the American Showcase Theatre in Alexandria, in the area premiere of this play, reminds us that while theater is universal, not every play can be translated simply by converting the words into English. The actual translation in this case is by the Czech-born Tom Stoppard, and it is eminently satisfactory. What is harder to communicate is the physical, cultural and political geography that would give the play texture and impact.
Havel wrote this play shortly after being released from prison in 1984. The director and leading man of this production is Rick Cluchey, co-founder of the San Quentin Drama Workshop (which is producing the play in association with American Showcase), and a man who served considerable time behind bars -- albeit not for political crimes. There would seem to be a natural affinity among Cluchey, Havel and the main character, a man who is tormented by the prospect of being taken away by the police for having written things they don't like. But Cluchey's Professor Nettles is a cornered rat, twitching and nervous, while the story describes a man in moral and emotional turmoil, pursued by friends and fans who want sacrifices from him they do not ask of themselves.
The production, it should be noted for National Enquirer fans, also marks the stage debut of Donna Rice (billed here as D.E. Rice), whose previous notoriety has more to do with boating than acting. Meryl Streep can rest easy.
Nettles is a philosophy professor (such titles are more exalted over there than they are here), the author of such works as "Phenomenology of Responsibility," "Love and Nothingness" and "The Ontology of the Human Self." It is the last work that has gotten him into trouble, particularly his chapter on "Intellectual Hooliganism."
For most of the play, however, we do not know this. We know only that Nettles has imprisoned himself in his book-lined apartment (an excellent rendering by designer Bud Thorpe), waiting for the doorbell ring that will signal the arrival of those who would take him "there," presumably prison. His companions are his nasty and empty-headed wife, Suzana (Maurey Lancaster), who carries on openly with his assistant, Edward (Charles Dawson). He is visited occasionally by his luscious and discontented mistress, Lucy (Teresita Garcia Suro).
He has a constant stream of callers, starting with two workers from the local mill (Teman Treadway and Sewell Whitney) who want to give him piles of secret documents so that he can write an expose' of goings-on at the mill. They represent the people who see in Nettles a savior, a man willing to buck the repressive system and courageously stand up for their freedom. A priest (John O'Keefe) comes to express concern, both for his friend Nettles' health and his commitment to his position as a dissident.
But Nettles does not see himself in such a glorious light. When the play opens he is contemplating suicide, first with a gun in his mouth, then with a seemingly endless supply of pills. He drinks excessively and contemplates selling out, nearly agreeing to recant his controversial work in return for having his case dropped. When his mistress asks for his love and acknowledgment of their relationship, he will not give it, withholding his compassion and maintaining his self-centeredness.
So why are all these people so focused on this guy? Why do the two Mutt and Jeff police officers (Charles Goldbeck and Chris Lamb) see him as such a threat? Why does a comely young student (Rice) appear at the end and offer herself to save him from despair? Here lies one of the central flaws of this production: We have no idea.
Cluchey has made a bold but ill-advised choice in both directing and starring. As a director, he has failed himself, the actor, by ignoring the need for the character to start at one place and build to another. His Nettles starts as a frantic, agitated person and ends as one; there is no arc of emotional time passing. One senses there should be more than just tension to this character; he is confronting the spiritual crisis of his life, and surely the physical form it takes could be more than just pacing and twitching.
One example of Cluchey's failing is the question of the pills Nettles is constantly chugging down. What kind of pills are they? What is their effect on him -- to slow him down or to speed him up? And what is Nettles doing in the bathroom -- splashing his face with water, as Cluchey appears to be doing, or vomiting the pills so that he won't die?
The play is elliptical, bits of information revealed against an unknown background. While there might be natural associations with the work of playwrights Samuel Beckett (with whose works Cluchey has made his name in the theater) or Harold Pinter, Havel is neither, and it is up to the director to interpret his singular vision.
The other actors, for the most part, are stuck in a bastardized style that is neither realistic nor stylized. O'Keefe comes closest to one viable interpretation: natural, playing the somewhat opaque lines as though they were completely comprehensible. Goldbeck takes another, equally plausible tack by going for theatrical extremes, creating an exaggerated character that is interesting and consistent. Suro, the fetching mistress, is convincing on her own but at odds with the professor, the main character she must interact with.
Rice exemplifies the old saw that you can teach technique but you can't teach talent. She has taken her work seriously, learning her words and where she's supposed to walk, and when she should look up and when down, but is far from integrating these elements into a real character. She is no better and no worse than hundreds of other ingenues, and one can't help thinking that casting her is something of a gimmick inappropriate for a theater that wants to be taken seriously.
At that, she does not stand out like a sore thumb in this cast. Lancaster, whose biography lists far more credits than Rice's, is equally superficial. Treadway and Whitney, who have more raw material than either of the women, have eschewed the friendly enthusiasm their characters could have in favor of a comedic interpretation that doesn't jibe. And Chris Lamb, the "Second Chap" who comes to threaten Professor Nettles, is also clownish without being funny.
It is rare to have a leader of the stature of Havel who has left such a paper trail, and an even greater gift that so much of it is theater that could be shared by audiences of all kinds. There are a number of Havel plays in production around the country, a measure of our interest in him. This production will intrigue Havel aficionados, perhaps, but not those eager for a communication from a person shaped by repression we can barely imagine.
Largo Desolato, by Vaclav Havel, translated by Tom Stoppard. Produced by the American Showcase Theatre in association with the San Quentin Drama Workshop. Directed by Rick Cluchey. Set and lighting, Bud Thorpe; costumes, Teresita Garcia Suro; sound, David Crandall. With Cluchey, Suro, Charles Dawson, Maurey Lancaster, Teman Treadway, Sewell Whitney, John O'Keefe, Charles Goldbeck, Chris Lamb and D.E. Rice. At 1822 Duke St., Alexandria, through Nov. 11.