MAYDAYS'' may be about revolution, but in theatrical terms it is counterrevolutionary, and welcomely so. Everywhere one looks on the stage these days, playwrights are working in miniature. The two-or-three-character, one-set play seems to be this generation's revolution in theatrical practice. There are some grim economic realities prompting this trend. Still, it leads to a theater that concentrates on the individual and the private relationship, to the exclusion of social issues and political movements.
British playwright David Edgar, however, is resisting this narrowness of focus, and resisting in style. His adaptation of ``Nicholas Nickleby'' for the Royal Shakespeare Company provided gorgeous evidence that theater can still work effectively on a large scale. With his new play, ``Maydays,'' also written originally for the Royal Shakespeare and judged Britain's best play in 1983, Mr. Edgar has succeeded at an even more ambitious endeavor. He chronicles 40 years of political history, penetrating and pr obing without preaching, with an epic sweep that the theater has seen all too little of since Shakespeare.
Seattle's ACT (A Contemporary Theatre) has bravely undertaken the risky chore of giving ``Maydays'' its US premi`ere. The production is a bit creaky in places -- understandable, given a play with 53 roles and a running time of 31/2 hours -- but the rough spots are more than compensated for by the exhilaration of watching serious political argument made to work effectively on stage.
Edgar's play is sprawling and episodic, moving back and forth between Budapest, Moscow, and London, with occasional side trips elsewhere. The dominant threat concerns the political odyssey of Martin Glass (engagingly played by David Pichette), a British youth who moves from the fashionable radicalism of the '60s, to socialist commitment in the '70s, to conservative reaction in the '80s. His story is shadowed darkly by the contrary experiences of a Russian, Pavel Lermontov (in a touching performance by K urt Beattie), whom we meet as a young officer helping to crush the Hungarian revolt of 1956. We follow him as he becomes a dissident and exile, troubled to find himself lionized by the authoritarians of the West.
No one of any political stripe is going to sit comfortably through ``Maydays,'' which is high virtue in political theater. Edgar excoriates the follies and self-delusions of the left, yet at the same time plants the strong suspicion that the ``tough minded'' rhetoric of the right has more to do with privilege than liberty. But all parties to the argument -- left, right, and apostate -- are made fully articulate. There are enough sharp lines and incisive speeches on all sides to challenge anyone's complacency.
Although some of the scenes are overly static, for the most part Edgar holds dramatic interest through the human conflict; we are genuinely eager to see how these people will turn out. More important, though, we are eager to see how the argument will turn out. This is theater in which the real suspense concerns who will have the last word.
ACT tackled this herculean task with two directors, Jeff Steitzer and Anne-Denise Ford (both resident directors with the company). Collectively, they have painted clearly and effectively on this large canvas, although the Eastern European scenes tend toward stiffness, and there are accent problems throughout. In so large a cast some unevenness is to be expected, but all the principals are strong: In addition to Pichette and Beattie, Richard Riehle and Laurence Ballard are solid and credible as former re volutionaries of the West and East, respectively, who have made the transition to professional anticommunism, and Demetra Pittman remains sweetly sympathetic throughout as a veteran of the old, new, and newest lefts whose undiminished idealism, however emotional or shifting in focus, serves as a counterpart to Martin's intellectual fickleness.
Whatever its failings, ``Maydays'' is admirable work, strenuous mental exercise that is theatrically entertaining as well. ACT is greatly to be admired for joining the vanguard of the counterrevolution and doing its bit to restore to theater the epic scale it needs if it is to remain important in our culture. Here's hoping that more theaters around the country will join in the battle on this front.
``Maydays'' runs at ACT in Seattle through Aug. 11.