Havel: The Passion of Thought

Vanek (David Barlow) is trapped between Michael (Christopher Marshall, left) and Vera (Emily Kron) in Vaclav Havel’s  Private View .

Vanek (David Barlow) is trapped between Michael (Christopher Marshall, left) and Vera (Emily Kron) in Vaclav Havel’s Private View.

Potomac Theater Project (PTP) has assembled an evening of political theater, presenting three short plays by the Czech playwright and dissident Vaclav Havel, who went on to become the country’s president, and bookending them with shorts by Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett. The five plays together are given the title Havel: The Passion of Thought, and are all directed by PTP founder and coartistic director Richard Romagnoli.

Pinter’s The New World Order features the brutal yet quirky banter of two guards as they prepare to torture a man, who kneels in front of them with a bag over his head. The performers Michael Laurence and Christopher Marshall hit all the notes of the offbeat dark humor, but the piece itself is heavy-handed and this rendition never achieves the nerve-wracking intensity that seems intended.

Vanek and Stanekova (Danielle Skraastad) discuss politics in Havel’s  Protest .

Vanek and Stanekova (Danielle Skraastad) discuss politics in Havel’s Protest.

The highlight of the evening is the first of the three “Vanek plays” by Havel, Interview—all three plays, from the 1970s, feature the character Ferdinand Vanek, a soft-spoken dissident and writer, played with boyish earnestness by David Barlow (Barlow also appears as the bagged man in the Pinter play and, also unspeaking, in the Beckett finale). Vanek is laconic, and when he does speak he offers very little in the way of opinion. He seems to be a foil to bring out the worries, insecurities, and contradictions of the people he encounters, who seem baffled by his straightforward, bland decency and seeming simplicity.

In Interview, Vanek must meet with the Brewmaster at the brewery where he does manual labor, having presumably been blacklisted from most other forms of employment. Downing mugs of beer, the Brewmaster (Laurence) is a mix of excessive cheer, brooding suspicion, class resentment (“I’m not good enough for you, huh?”), and deep insecurity (“Are we friends?”). Laurence has to carry the show, given Vanek’s passivity, and he does so through broad but effective strokes, as he pivots from feigned cheer to invective to needy apologia. He is trying to get Vanek to spy on himself, and give those reports to the Brewmaster, who can then pass them on to his superior, and everyone can stay employed, working within the deranged system. The play’s tone borders on absurdist, and though the ending is comic, it poignantly demonstrates the impossibility of real human connection in a society of pervasive lies and distrust.

Barlow plays the Protagonist in Samuel Beckett’s  Catastrophe . Photographs by Stan Barouh.

Barlow plays the Protagonist in Samuel Beckett’s Catastrophe. Photographs by Stan Barouh.

Private View is a farce about an affluent married couple, attired in garish red outfits (costume design by Glenna Ryer), who have invited their “best friend” Vanek over to show him all the goods they have collected and insist, with increasing frenzy and desperation, on the perfection of all aspects of their lives and the general terribleness of Vanek’s. The play, however, is really just a series of variations on one joke, performed with increasing hyperactivity but to no great point, as it races on toward its antic conclusion, with a nearly mute Vanek.

Vanek’s unresponsiveness can be a strength, as in Interview, but eventually becomes frustrating, as in Protest, which is forced into becoming essentially a monologue, spelling out an ethical dilemma, instead of letting that dilemma play out in subtler fashion through dialogue and character. Almost all the talking is left to Stanekova (Danielle Skraastad), a friend of Vanek’s and his crew from the old days, who is now a successful television writer, in part by toeing the government line and not risking her neck (and lifestyle) in dissident activities. Her guilt and illusions are presented in such an obvious way as to diminish the dramatic impact of the choice she has to make, which revolves around signing a petition to release an imprisoned pop star.

The finale, Beckett’s Catastrophe, which was dedicated to Havel, about a director (Madeline Ciocci) and her assistant (Emily Ballou) making a statue-like man pose in various ways, is a misfire, though it does show off Hallie Zieselman’s lighting, which is excellent throughout all the plays. But it’s a deflating way to conclude a sporadically interesting, though somewhat flat, theatrical experience, that, despite the horrific political situation in this country today, never manages to feel particularly engaged or relevant.

Havel: The Passion of Thought runs through Aug. 4 at Atlantic Theater Company Stage 2 (330 West 16th St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. and matinees are at 2 p.m., but the schedule varies; for exact days and times visit ptpnyc.org. Tickets are available by calling (866) 811-4111 or visiting the website.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post