Following his release from prison in Czechoslovakia in 1985, Vaclav Havel took just four days to write Largo Desolato, his semi-autobiographical play about a dissident philosopher paralyzed by his fear of being imprisoned once again and by the outsized expectations of his countrymen awaiting his next words. While communist totalitarianism may be a thing of the past, and Havel would go on to become his country's president for 13 years, his play remains deeply resonant for our own age of anxiety, surveillance, and liberty challenged.
The Tyna Collective's trenchant production, in a fine translation by fellow Czech Tom Stoppard, is part of a six-week, 16-play festival of Havel's work timed to coincide with the playwright's 70th birthday and a brief residency at Columbia University. Director Eva Burgess teases out the play's black humor while never losing sight of its seriousness of purpose. To the play's obvious debts to the theater of the absurd, Burgess adds touches of Brechtian artifice, such as the seating of the actors in the front row when they are not onstage.
The play unfolds on David Evans Morris's fanciful set, which consists of a spare living room with four stand-alone doorways at back leading out to the entryway, the balcony (denoted by a plant and a painting of a blue sky), the bathroom, and the rest of the apartment.
Professor Leopold Nettles, author of Ontology of the Human Self and Phenomenology of Responsibility, has retreated to his apartment, suffering from writer's block and quaking at each ring of the doorbell. Nettles is not even able to articulate his own state of alienation, instead parroting the description offered by a concerned friend. When "they"—a bumbling duo of secret police—finally do arrive and offer him "a once in a lifetime chance for a fresh start" if he will disown his former identity, the offer appeals to him since he no longer recognizes himself in the husk of a man he has become.
Largo Desolato, with its minimalist plot and masterfully orchestrated repetition of scenes, dialogue, and situations, calls for a formal rigor in its execution. Burgess delivers by guiding her cast toward tight, disciplined performances and by coaxing a clean and uncluttered aesthetic from her design team.
In the demanding lead role, Erik Kever Ryle achingly communicates Nettles's growing despair and impotence while also conveying the charisma and sparkling intelligence that would have garnered him such attention in the first place.
The rest of the cast is uniformly stellar. Joshua Briggs and Jon Okabayashi are hilarious as the sneezing, daft detective and his even more clueless partner. Another delightful comic duo are Janet Ward and Skyler Sullivan, with mirroring performances as the tall and short Sidneys from the local paper mill, who declare themselves fans of Nettles and bear down on him to fulfill his obligations to ordinary people like themselves.
Martin Lopez's simply cut, vivid costumes, Juliet Chia's full, steady lighting, and Ken Hashimoto's striking musical punctuation hew tightly to the overall style.
During this fraught moment in our own country's history, it is fitting to revisit the lifework of a distinguished playwright who so seamlessly wedded politics and morality. There may be no better introduction to Havel's work than this incisive staging of a work that's considered to be one of his greatest plays.