It is no minor accomplishment that the Wilma Theater secured the U.S. premiere of
, the first new play in 20 years by former Czech dissident, playwright, poet, and president Václav Havel. It also, however, fits naturally with director Jiri Zizka's absurdist leanings, his own ties to the Velvet Revolution (subscriber's bonus: last season's
Rock and Roll
, by Czech-born Tom Stoppard, is almost a primer for this work), and the Wilma's reputation as a home for new plays of international importance.
The history of Leaving is nearly as colorful as that of its author. In the Czech Republic, it touched down at three theaters before it finally was produced - and then only with the stipulation that Havel's second wife, Dagmar, an actress, be cast as the protagonist's "longtime companion" Irena. She then left the production shortly before its opening.
Havel claims the work isn't autobiographical, but come on - he clearly is still a diplomat. A farcical mash-up of The Cherry Orchard, King Lear, and Endgame (if you have a ticket, make sure you're familiar with those texts; otherwise consider offering your seat to someone who is), Leaving watches the dissolution of a well-meaning, if idealistic, henpecked, and philandering chancellor, Dr. Vilem Rieger (David Strathairn), who is forced to pass the baton of power to his ruthless successor Klein (Trevor Long) and vacate his state-owned villa.
The play boasts a cast of 15, many of whom are lackeys and bootlickers in Rieger's entourage, and who eagerly jump ship once the governmental shift looks like a sure thing. Strathairn underplays Rieger, and Zizka highlights his vulnerability - baggy suit, shoulders slumped, his virility as faded as his convictions.
Rieger is as much a puppet of his mother (Janis Dardaris), daughters, and the bombshell Irena (Kathryn Meisle, who, thankfully, keeps the character multifaceted rather than cartoonish) as he is of the new, and newly repressive, regime.
Each leader, Rieger and Klein, repeats the Lockean sentiment, "The government is here to serve the citizen, the citizen is not here to serve the government," although between the men, the definition of "service" has wide latitude. And in the ultimate exercise of power, a voice-over by F. Murray Abraham (speaking as the playwright) frequently interrupts the proceedings. Recognizing that he could easily leave his characters stranded at the threshold of one of the many doors scattered around Klara Zieglerova's set, the Voice instead subjects his actors to only minor indignities, such as drinking cinnamon-topped beer. Acknowledging the limits of his own power, even he says he is merely "mediating something that transcends me."
It's a lot to consider, and the latter part of Leaving's second act significantly overstates its case. However, the play is entirely in keeping with Havel's previous dramatic-absurdist meditations on individuality and bureaucracy, and makes for a compelling insight into the winding down of a fascinating political identity, and the banalities of both good and evil.
Through June 20 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St. Tickets: $36-$55, discounts available. Information: 215-546-7824 or www.WilmaTheater.org.