Rare social drama of impact and conviction - 'A Private View'
New York — Czechoslovakia, one of the most repressive communist dictatorships outside the Soviet Union, is the scene of three short, chillingly authentic plays at the Public Theater/Martinson Hall. ''A Private View,'' the overall title, is the work of the formerly imprisoned Czech playwright and dissident, Vaclav Havel.
The production by the New York Shakespeare Festival is more than an important stage event. It is one of the rare examples of relevant social drama available anywhere on the local theatrical scene.
Set in Prague, ''A Private View'' reflects Havel's own experiences within a totalitarianism that corrupts, suffocates, and dehumanizes. ''Interview,'' the opener, introduces Vanek (the author's pseudonym). Having been forced to take menial employment in a brewery, Vanek undergoes a crudely transparent interrogation by a beer-swilling head maltster (Barton Heyman). (Havel once worked in such an establishment.)
The maltmaster starts the questioning in a tone of clumsy camaraderie. As the encounter proceeds and the beer takes its effect, the petty tyrant reveals himself as petty victim - a time server filled with mistrust, insecurity, and paranoia. His double objective is to browbeat and cajole Vanek (Stephen Keep) into informing on fellow human rights activists and, later, to persuade the former playwright to arrange an all-night date with a popular actress. By the end of the scene, the maltmaster has reduced himself to befuddled hysteria.
The title play, which is also the centerpiece of the evening, introduces Vera and Michael (Concetta Tomei and Nicholas Hormann), a swinging couple who combine exhibitionism and execrable taste in equal amounts. Opportunist Michael and his willing spouse have played the system to their own advantage. The dividends are pop records and whiskey from America, plus a horrendous collection of junky furniture and high-priced objets d'art. Old friend Vanek has been invited to view and to sample their conspicuous consumerism and even their ''liberated'' sexual behavior.
Havel's first two vignettes are set in 1975, the last in 1978. Titled simply ''Protest,'' it turns out to be the most devastating. In response to a surreptitious summons, Vanek visits a friend and former colleague, Stanek (Richard Jordan). Stanek's daughter's boyfriend, by whom the girl is pregnant, has been picked up for interrogation. While attempting to pull strings, Stanek also hopes that Vanek will organize a protest on behalf of the detained young man.
It develops that Vanek has already written a statement of protest and collected some 50 signatures, preparatory to contacting the foreign press. Will Stanek also sign the protest? The ensuing expose of moral deviousness is skillfully developed, objectively stated, and cumulatively horrifying. After all of Stanek's empty rhetoric and shallow self-reproaches, Vanek says simply: ''I respect your reasoning.'' It is a terrible indictment.
By combining commitment with a kind of dispassionate overview - a degree of sympathy for even the contrivers and connivers - ''A Private View'' acquires an impact that a more obvious confrontation might not have achieved. Vanek is a man of deep conviction rather than savage indignation. His very quietude, seeming tentativeness, and hesitancy to condemn contribute to the power of these short plays. Mr. Keep's performance seems less a display of acting than a state of being. His Vanek is a quietly fearless man determined not to be compromised.
Mr. Jordan gives a searching portrayal as the literary sellout who prospers by writing the trash demanded by the cultural commissars, while burying his conscience among the trees of his well-tended orchard. His rationale is the dialectic of cowardice.
Lee Grant's staging responds impressively to the intellectual complexities and psychological undercurrents of the writing, although there seems to be something slightly amiss in the tone of the middle play. Vera Blackwell's translation has a colloquially contemporary ring. Marjorie Bradley Kellogg has designed three easily movable settings against the stationary background of a forbidding brick wall and within a proscenium framed by ideological poster art. The production has been lighted by Arden Fingerhut and costumed by Carol Oditz. All in all, a most impressive achievement.
Economics permitting, Broadway could use a drama of such conviction, relevance, and dramatic power. (''A Private View'' is scheduled to run at the Public through Dec. 11.)