The name Edvard Radzinsky will strike a bell only if you are thoroughly up to date on the Russian theater scene. Then you will know that he is the most popular playwright in his country. His third play, ``104 Pages About Love,'' has been produced in some 120 theaters in the Soviet Union and made into a film, an opera, and even a ballet. At this writing, five of his plays are in production in Moscow. His work has been seen in Scandinavia, Europe, Japan, and the United States, and the world premi`ere of h is newest work will take place in Paris this winter. Mr. Radzinsky is in New York for the US premi`ere of ``Lunin: Theatre of Death'' at the Jean Cocteau Repertory Company, Bouwerie Lane Theatre, in the heart of the Bowery. He is one of the few Russian artists to be allowed to visit this country since cultural ties were severed at the beginning of the Afghanistan conflict.
This son of a respected Russian man of letters looks rather like any ordinary man in the streets of New York -- not especially tall, dressed in nondescript trousers and a jogging-suit top. During a recent talk through a particularly effective translator, one could hear him choosing his words with meticulous care. He may be soft-spoken and gentle of demeanor, but that does not hide his inner strength and his deep, passionately theater-oriented convictions.
``The theater is not just an art, it is one of the most mysterious and important of the arts. It is a part of culture, of education. Why does it have to survive with such difficulty in such a rich country? Why do great actors have to work as waiters?'' He asks these questions with genuine amazement. ``I don't understand this.'' He marvels that ``these [theater] people maintain this wonderful fanaticism. From the point of view of normal people, they must be a little crazy.'' He then continues with his ve ry Russian viewpoint (an outcome of a culture that has traditionally viewed the fool as a sacred figure): ``But only the mad can make art. And I would wish that normal people would help these crazy people a little. Because if they suddenly ceased being mad, something very important would die in this world.''
Radzinsky's play ``Lunin'' is about a mad creature -- Mikhail Sergeevich Lunin, an intellectual born in 1787, who was accused of plotting to assassinate Czar Nicholas at the time of the Decembrists' Uprising in 1825. He was a complex individual -- an odd mix of revolutionary, gambler, duelist, iconoclast, philosopher, author, and martyr. Imprisoned in 1826 for his alleged crime, he was later released, then reimprisoned in 1841, where he died mysteriously in 1845.
``I thought that `Lunin' was a very Russian play,'' Radzinsky notes candidly. ``It is full of the actual events of Russian history. It is very much a play about the Russian intelligentsia -- about the Decembrists -- which is one of the holiest pages in Russian history. To understand Russian history, Russian social thought, and the Russian character, it is impossible to understand all those things without understanding the history of the Decembrists. It was the first encounter of the Russian intelligents ia with freedom, and it was shot down in the Square [Senate Square, St. Petersburg].
``So I was very surprised when `Lunin' was staged in Denmark. I was surprised by the reaction. . . . It was the same reaction as I saw in Moscow. [Also] in this theater [the Bouwerie Lane], the silence, an attentive silence, is the same as it is in Moscow. For me that is the most precious thing in this play.''
``Lunin'' is, finally, an allegory based on a historic personage. It deals with so many universal issues and ideas -- a play about revolutionaries, about the banality of power, the paranoia of political bureaucracy, about one man's refusal to compromise in a system that dictates compromise, about courage, vision, and the personal cost for radical, idealistic stances.
Radzinsky does not talk explicitly about the life of a popular playwright in the Soviet Union, though he calls it, wryly, a comfortable occupation: ``When a play fails, there is always somebody else to blame!'' He finds attending rehearsals tends to keep him from his work, but he adds, ``It does prepare you for what you will see opening night: To meet your play in its premi`ere is a big test of courage; it is possible not to recognize it as your work at all.''
As to the difference between Moscow and New York theater, he cites only the size of the houses back home -- caverns, particularly as compared with the tiny Bouwerie Lane. He also artfully evades a question about whether his fame makes it easier or harder to communicate his messages by way of his art. Instead, he explains that ``A playwright who has many plays being performed is in a strong position. In Moscow, it is almost impossible to get into a theater when there is an opening. The whole town is try ing to get a seat. And the writer and the director are made very powerful because you award people with tickets.''
He notes how thrilled he is that ``Lunin'' is being produced near Greenwich Village -- the heart, in his opinion, of the American literature he has admired over the years. In speaking about the availability of American writing in Moscow (it's limited), he cites Jack Kerouac, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Tennessee Williams (`` `A Streetcar Named Desire' is still a blessed play'') as personal favorites. While in New York he has seen ``A Chorus Line'' (``The concept makes y ou envious!'') and Stephen Sondheim's ``Sunday in the Park with George'' (``It started off so wonderfully, . . . and then the second half, the construction all tumbled to the ground with a pretty big thud''). He will see Sam Shepard's ``The Curse of the Starving Class'' on the eve of his departure (``Shepard has a future in the Russian theater: At home they like everything that's difficult to understand, that's unintelligible!'').
``We are not very well acquainted with each other now,'' he observes about our two theatrical worlds. ``We've heard about you more, and you've heard less about us. I hope very much that now will come the time when these relations will change, and the cultures will join and will affect each other. And that will be to the benefit of both our cultures.''