Czech dissident's play given US premi`ere

Largo Desolato Play by Vaclav Havel, translated by Marie Winn. Directed by Richard Foreman. The New York Shakespeare Festival, which produced Vaclav Havel's three-part ``A Private View'' in 1983, is currently presenting the American premi`ere of ``Largo Desolato,'' a more complex, intellectually dense, and difficult work by the persecuted Czech dissident. In the new drama, Havel illustrates the suffocating pressures of the police state through the Kafkaesque ordeal endured by a philosopher, Dr. Leopold Kopriva (Josef Sommer). Fears of what may lie ahead of him at the brutal hands of officialdom have reduced the respected Prague intellectual to a state of nervous hysteria.

Far from being left in the solitary desolation the title suggests, Leopold is besieged by an assortment of individuals somehow concerned with his plight. All voice more or less helpful, occasionally repetitive, advice and comments. They include two male friends (Tom Mardirosian and Joseph Wiseman); Leopold's roommate, his girlfriend, and a susceptible student (Sally Kirkland, Diane Venora, and Jodi Thelen); and two solemn millworkers (Larry Block and Burke Pearson) who fulfill their promises of paper and documents. Havel trims his horror tale with comic bits.

After their first shattering visit, the dreaded thought police (Edward Zang and Richard Russell Ramos) return to inform Leopold that his case has been ``postponed.'' (The authorities had demanded that he deny authorship of a certain philosophical treatise.) ``Largo Desolato'' ends with a tableau vivant in which all of the play's characters suddenly confront the wretched professor.

Mr. Sommer creates a harrowing portrait of a neurotic whose panic mounts as he struggles to evade his role as chosen symbolic champion. The millworkers assure him that they are his friends who believe in him and need him. Says one: ``You'll figure out the right form. You're a philosopher, after all.'' The longwinded Olbram (Mr. Wiseman) delivers similar assurances of affection, but goes on to accuse Leopold of ``playing yourself instead of being yourself.'' Even his girlfriend assails him for destroying their relationship. All the while, Leopold waits in apprehension for the arrival (and return) of the two trenchcoated representatives of oppressive officialdom.

The generally well-acted production staged by Richard Foreman (who co-designed the scenery with Nancy Winters) employs heightened lighting (by Heather Carson) to intensify the theatrical -- at times almost hallucinatory -- effect. Excerpts from a thundering transcription of Bach's double violin concerto punctuate the unfolding terror play.

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