Cinders Play by Janusz Glowacki. Translated by Christina Paul. Directed by John Madden.
The place is a reform school somewhere - ''not that far from Warsaw.'' The inmates are serving time for lawbreaking of various kinds. The officials are the familiar time-servers of communist totalitarianism. A hip, hard-driving movie director, his eye on a Western film festival prize, arrives at the institution to make a documentary about the production of ''Cinderella'' the girls are rehearsing.
And so Polish emigre writer Janusz Glowacki has all the realistic and metaphorical elements for ''Cinders,'' which is having its American premiere at the Public Theater/LuEsther Hall. Amid the comings and goings of rehearsals and the mundane reformatory routine, Glowacki concentrates on four central figures. They are the cynically ambitious director himself, the well-meaning but irresolute principal of the institution, his slyly opportunistic deputy, and the girl chosen to play Cinderella.
For her own reasons, the youngster refuses to respond to the on-camera interviews that substantiate the documentary. The cruel means by which the unscrupulous deputy seeks to force her cooperation bring about the play's horrifying climax.
Meanwhile, Glowacki aims his ire and his irony at bureaucrats steeped in the Newspeak of Orwell's ''1984.'' A line in the opening interview between a visiting inspector and the principal typifies the satirical approach: ''We have nothing to hide. At the same time, there is no reason to open our doors wide to the whole country.'' Before he turns truly despicable, the deputy has a highly comic scene in which he transforms a prison lament the girls have composed into a ditty of sweetness and light.
Under John Madden's fluid direction, ''Cinders'' is performed on a bare, arena-style stage onto which the actors bring the essential props and furnishings needed for the changing scenes. The method serves the discursive multilayered nature of the play: sardonic toward the functionary mentality and the exploitative movie director; realistic and yet compassionate toward the tough little wards, dominated not only by their wardens but by the bully cast as the Prince in ''Cinderella''; sensitively perceptive in the scene in which the girl playing Cinderella gives the indecisive principal some advice on the treatment of his errant wife.
''Cinders'' is believably acted by a cast that includes Christopher Walken (the movie director), Lucinda Jenney (Cinderella), George Guidall (the Principal), Robin Gammell (the Deputy), and Dori Hartley (the Prince). The Public Theater production was designed by Andrew Jackness (scenery), Jane Greenwood (costumes), and Paul Gallo (lighting). Deena Kaye is the music director. Richard Peaslee composed the incidental music.
(Footnote: ''Cinders'' enjoyed wide popularity in Poland at the time of the Solidarity movement. In 1981, when Glowacki was in London for the play's production by the Royal Court Theatre, the Polish government declared martial law. The author did not return to Poland. He subsequently came to the United States, where his wife and daughter joined him.)