Budapest — ``You have a choice between two vases,'' says Jozsef Sas, explaining elections in Hungary. ``Both of them are red.'' The audience smiles. Men in oversize ties shift in their seats. Women wiggle in their '50s-style demure dresses. Comrade Sas, a small, slim, curly-haired Woody Allen-ish figure, twitches his goatee.
``You think that's bad?'' he asks. ``Well, we could do worse. Before, there was only one vase.''
This latest show at the Theatre Mikroskop, Hungary's leading political cabaret, is insolent, provocative, far-reaching -- and still limited. As such, it illustrates the cultural freedom and also the lack of cultural freedom in this most tolerant of East-bloc countries.
By Eastern standards, Hungarian liberalism is striking. In Czechoslovakia, it is impossible to find a copy of Franz Kafka's works. On Budapest's Vaci Street, all of Kafka's volumes sit in the window. So do such Western publications as the Herald Tribune and such controversial books as Saul Bellow's ``Dean's December,'' which describes nearby Bucharest as a creepy jail with peeling paint.
But behind this liberalism lie boundaries. To see them in the harshest light, just go around the corner from the Theatre Mikroskop and walk up to the fifth-floor apartment of Gabor Demsky.
Mr. Demsky is an independent publisher in a country where all publishing is supposed to be controlled by the state. He edits an underground magazine called Hirmondo, which focuses on the social and political problems inside Hungary -- poverty, inequality, alcoholism -- as well as on controversial developments in other Soviet-bloc countries.
Demsky says that, in the past few months, his house has been searched, his writings confiscated, and large fines imposed on him and his colleagues. Demsky believes the authorities want to demonstrate toughness as the 30th anniversary of the 1956 revolt approaches.
``The authorities don't want to imprison me,'' he says. ``They just want to harass me, to make my life miserable.''
Why do Demsky and his friends encounter problems? After all, even they admit that Hungary has no official censorship. Many dissidents even continue to publish in the official press.
``I criticized the present five-year economic plan in the latest Journal of Economic Affairs,'' economist Tamas Bauer reports. ``Almost everything can be published.''
Could he publish his articles in the official press? ``Probably. But on principle I refuse to ask for permission. It's my natural right to publish what I want.''
Defending this natural right leads to numerous paradoxes. At a recent meeting of the writers' union, for example, one writer stood up and said, ``Give us censorship.'' At least in that way, the writer told English journalist Timothy Garton Ash, ``we would know where the hedges are.''
Poland's now-banned Solidarity trade union attacked censorship in precisely this way, demanding that it be defined. The result is that censorship is more explicit and visible in Poland than anywhere else in Eastern Europe.
At Theatre Mikroskop, Jozsef Sas exemplifies self-censorship. He calls himself a loyal Communist Party member, but a ``communist without illusions.'' Born in 1939, he grew up during the severe Stalinist 1950s.
``It was impossible to laugh then, even impossible to blink,'' he says, chuckling. ``We all feared a higher-up was spying on you from under your eyelids.''
Following the trauma of the 1956 revolt, Sas pinned his fortune to conciliatory Communist Party leader Janos Kadar. Mr. Kadar's compromise, in rough terms, was that if you observed the political limits, then the state would impose virtually no stylistic limits -- and would provide for you generously, even lavishly. Although the limits were never clearly defined, everyone assumed that they fundamentally concerned criticism of the Soviet Union or neighboring socialist states.
That bargain created Theatre Mikroskop. Founded 15 years ago, it carries on the dying tradition of political cabaret in Eastern Europe. In Romania, the cabarets are nonexistent. In Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria, they have been ``normalized.'' A few remain in Poland, particularly in Krakow, but they are tolerated, not welcomed, by the authorities. Alone in communist Europe, political cabaret in Hungary receives strong official sponsorship.
Hungarians crave the humor. All the Mikroskop's seats are booked weeks, even months, in advance. Sas's weekly television show, ``Kabare,'' is a national institution. Some 5 million Hungarians -- half the country's population -- are estimated to tune in every week.
Why? Sas says because he feeds a hunger to laugh about the mounting problems facing Hungary. In recent years, the country's economy has stagnated, prices have risen, and poverty spread.
Sas prides himself in stretching the limits of toleration. In a recent sketch he played Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state -- and mocked him. ``No one else in a socialist country has ever done that,'' he says.
With his goatee and his telltale cap in place, he mimics the famous call to action. ``A specter is haunting Europe,'' he says. ``No, no, an experience haunts Europe -- communism.
``One day communism will be constructed,'' he adds. ``Until then . . . .''
Until then, indeed. For there are still subjects that Sas will not touch. The 1956 Hungarian uprising, for example. The Warsaw Pact. ``It doesn't come up,'' he explains. ``As long as NATO exists, we need the Warsaw Pact.''
The final message is clear. Sas is free to poke fun at just about everything. But his ultimate message remains clear: The best system is the socialist system.
He returns to his sketch about elections in a communist country. In the most recent parliamentary vote, the authorities permitted two candidates to contest each seat, provided they were reliable party members.
``Two vases are definitely better than one,'' Sas says. A fellow comedian agrees and says he chooses to buy the one on the right.
``No, no,'' Sas answers. ``You can only have the one on the left.''