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The American tourist is still good for laughs

By John Beaufort / January 21, 1982



New York

Zastrozzi Play by George F. Walker. Directed by Andrei Serban.

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''Zastrozzi'' is one of those plays that seeks to hold the attention by distracting the imagination. To an extent, the comic phantasmagoria at the Public/Other Stage succeeds. Metaphors as well as travestied sex and violence run rampant as six eccentric characters pursue and evade the destinies devised for them by Canadian dramatist George F. Walker.

The uninterrupted 90-minute entertainment gets down to business when the black-clad and bowler-hatted title character delivers a brief curriculum vitae. Zastrozzi (Jan Triska) announces that he is the master criminal of Europe (circa 1890), adding that this is not a boast but merely information. ''Misery loves chaos and chaos loves company,'' asserts the aphoristic killer. Zastrozzi is in hot pursuit of the Christian artist and opportunist, Verezzi (Grzegorz Wagrowski), the alleged murderer of the villain's mother. The nightmarish plot also involves Zastrozzi's hit-man stooge (Andreas Katsulas), the childishly innocent Julia (Frances Conroy), and the voraciously seductive Matilda (Judith Roberts).

This is the essential matter of ''Zastrozzi.'' The manner is a kind of traditional surrealism, a blending of nonrealist influences. In his hyperbolic extravaganza, Mr. Walker borrows forms from circus to grand opera without music (all but Zastrozzi have expired by the final curtain). Several of the characters suggest circus clowns, and Zastrozzi himself is a kind of demonic ringmaster.

Although the performance offers little in the way of consistent ensemble, it has been staged by Andrei Serban in a suitably European manner. Mr. Triska is a dominating and diabolical Zastrozzi, mercurially shifting from mock villainy to a more chilling kind of sinisterness. He is assigned to manipulate the audience as well as his fellow characters.

The impression is confirmed when Zastrozzi's shouted ''Achtung!'' brings the prone cast to its feet for curtain calls. Notwithstanding its prevailing cynicism, the events of the play can be taken as composing a nasty example - with contemporary implications - of how the forces of evil can manipulate and destroy the fragile and often self-deceiving forces of good. Zastrozzi's nightmare is Mr. Walker's play, and vice versa. It is a circus minimus, provocative without being profound.