Off Broadway Salutes Vaclav Havel With Two Dramas

THEATER: REVIEW

BY AND FOR HAVEL ``Audience,'' by Vaclav Havel, and ``Catastrophe,'' by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Vasek C. Simek. At the John Houseman Studio Theatre. OFF Broadway is honoring liberated Czechoslovakia's playwright-president in the most appropriate way possible - with an evening entitled ``By and For Havel.''

The one-act components are Havel's searing ``Audience'' and Samuel Beckett's moving ``Catastrophe,'' the latter inspired by Beckett's then-imprisoned fellow writer. The fine productions staged by Czech emigr'e Vasek C. Simek comprise more than a mere theatrical footnote to the recent American salutes to the hero of Czech liberation.

``Audience,'' which was produced in 1983 at the Public Theater as ``The Interview,'' draws on Mr. Havel's experience as a worker in a Prague brewery. In a series of underlyingly tense exchanges, the Boss (Kevin O'Connor) bullies, cajoles, and even seeks to enlist Vanek (Lou Brockway) in self-betrayal and spying. Although unsparing in his contempt for the beer-guzzling tyrant of the brewery, the playwright also perceives the man's total insecurity and his pathetic weakness as a human being.

Under Mr. Simek's direction of a translation by Czech Jan Novak, the two actors explore the shifting emotional and psychological currents of the lopsided relationship. Mr. O'Connor spares nothing in his devastating portrait of a petty tyrant, whether the boss is blustering or whining, playing the patronizing protector or the oafish anti-intellectual.

In his red wool cap and workman's garb, he is the ultimate time-serving bureaucrat, striving to conceal with braggadocio his all too apparent insecurity. Mr. Brockway's Vanek, meanwhile, deals as tactfully as he can with the uncomfortable, embarrassing, and even threatening situation while he strives to preserve his integrity.

``By and For Havel'' inevitably prompts spectator responses that go beyond the usual experiences of playgoing. What, for instance, will happen to all the second-raters whose go-along, get-along collusion helped drive the Czech nation to its pre-liberation crisis?

How will President Havel - a repeatedly imprisoned dissident - deal with those leftovers of recent history as he seeks to forge a new Czechoslovakia? Clearly, playwright Havel will have much more to write about when the time comes.

The production at the John Houseman Studio Theatre is the latest in a succession of events surrounding ``Audience.'' One of these events occurred when Messrs. O'Connor and Brockway acted the play in English in Prague last January (along with a Czech-language production). President Havel, who was among the spectators, was seeing his play for the first time, the Communist dictatorship having banned all his work.

On April 20, PBS is scheduled to broadcast ``Havel's Audience With History,'' a documentary which will include events surrounding the recent productions of ``Audience.''

``Catastrophe,'' the brief second part of ``By and For Havel,'' was written in 1983 at a time when Havel was in prison. It deals symbolically with oppression. In Beckett's terse playlet, an Art Director (Mr. O'Connor) is arranging a mannequin-like figure, identified as Protagonist (Mr. Brockway), with the aid of a subservient Assistant (Evelyn Tuths). The Assistant responds to the Director's authoritarian demands with an automatic, ``I take note.''

Finally, to the stirring strains of what the program identifies as the Czech national anthem, the ashen-faced Protagonist stirs slightly, his face suffused with a radiance that proclaims the freedom stirring within him. The point has been made, and the play is over.

The two actors respond admirably to the demands of their assignments, assisted in the second instance by Miss Tuths. The production was designed by E.F. Morrill (sets), Iris Bazan (costumes), and Marc D. Malamud (whose lighting includes a glowing effect for the finale of ``Catastrophe'').

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