In 1965 when Vaclav Havel, then a dissident playwright in Czechoslovakia, wrote "The Memorandum," the script was hailed as a small masterpiece of satire aimed at totalitarian bureaucracy.
Rick Davis's production of the play, which just opened at Theater of the First Amendment, relocates the story to a contemporary American setting. For audiences that have never had the pleasure of living in a police state, the effect is like listening to a symphony played on the edge of your hearing range. You catch all the big stuff, but none of the richly detailed nuance that gives the piece its real character. Havel's jokes and themes, so resonant in the original setting, end up sounding glib.
Josef Gross, the managing director of an unspecified, monolithic, governmental enterprise, one day discovers via memo that a new, synthetic language has, by official decree, been mandated to replace English throughout the office. As Gross tries to discern the rules of the language, and the real reason why it must be used, things get increasingly absurd as his fortunes fall, then rise again, then level off as he learns to be a company man.
Like Karl Capek--another Czech who wrote nonrealistic parables, and whose play "R.U.R." is also running in Washington at the moment--Havel is concerned with dehumanization and conformity. That much of "The Memorandum" translates readily for any culture familiar with the mind-numbing qualities of bureaucracy. But Havel's bureaucracy is an extension of a repressive political regime that crushes souls arbitrarily and always for its own sake. This is the broader context that makes the plot more than an intellectual sitcom.
Davis has chosen to replace Havel's original political context with issues of race and political correctness. Despite his sharply stylized movement and acute sense of pacing, Davis falls short. Casting Doug Brown, an African American actor, as Gross seems inspired in one sense: The story is transformed into one about a black man forced to conform to a white world. But the dynamics of American racial oppression and those of East European political oppression aren't the same.
Brown gives a really smart and funny performance: He plays Gross as an intelligent, rational man trying to fathom his extremely irrational situation. Rosemary Knower, as Gross's ravenously ambitious deputy and nemesis, seems to have a natural feel for knowing how to play a difficult character. Others worth watching include Deborah Hazlett, Mary Lechter, Kevin Murray, Jerrold Scott and Charles Wellington Young: They make the office seem frighteningly real.
Timothy Chew's lighting design can be described as Fluorescent Hell, and Jason Rubin's set, an authentically impersonal suite of offices, suggests there is no exit for the characters. But we don't get any sense of what's keeping these people locked in. Without that, the evening seems long, the jokes wear thin, and you start to feel like some drone stuck in his cubicle, watching the clock.
The Memorandum, by Vaclav Havel. Directed by Rick Davis. Costumes by Holly Highfill; sound, Mark K. Anduss. With John Kim, Cristina Alicea, Angela Lee Pionk and Luis Sanchez-Canete. Through Sept. 26 at Theater of the First Amendment, George Mason University. 703-218-6500.
CAPTION: Deborah Hazlett and Rosemary Knower, at left and above with Jerrold Scott and Charles Wellington Young, in the Theater of the First Amendment's "Memorandum."