A tale of (somewhat) innocents abroad. Political comedy set in Czechoslovakia
New York — Wenceslas Square Play by Larry Shue. Directed by Jerry Zaks. ``Wenceslas Square,'' at Public/Martinson Hall, abounds in the rewards of imaginative playmaking. It is also a poignant reminder of the loss to the theater of playwright Larry Shue, author of ``The Foreigner'' and ``The Nerd,'' who was killed in a 1985 plane crash and to whom this affectionately animated performance is dedicated. In the politically venturesome comedy at the Public Theater, Mr. Shue is dramatizing the assorted shocks, cultural and ideological, experienced by a pair of American innocents abroad in Communist Central Europe of 1974. Well, perhaps not total innocents. Vince Corey (Jonathan Hadary), an Indiana college professor, is returning to Czechoslovakia to complete the manuscript of his book on the ``Prague Spring'' of 1968 and its aftermath. Corey wants to find out what happened to the bright hopes for freer artistic expression that were brutally crushed when Soviet tanks rolled across the Czech border.
The play unfolds in the series of flashback conversations through which Corey and his young student photographer Dooley (Bruce Norris) pursue their researches. Through these brief vignettes, the production staged with inventive artistry by Jerry Zaks becomes an audience-involving experience.
As a mature Dooley (the first of The Men he portrays), Victor Garber grabs the spectator's attention with a throwaway gag. Unfolding with a kind of anecdotal simplicity, the fragmented memory play benefits from its theatrical environment: a black enclosed setting, a couple of well-coordinated revolving stages, and the economical arrangements of essential furniture which adorn Loren Sherman's accommodating scenery.
Within these milieus, Corey and his bright but unobtrusive young assistant make contact with the Czechs, who provide a cumulatively disillusioning update. The incomparable Dana Ivey (late of ``Driving Miss Daisy'') and the versatile Mr. Garber are sources of constant delight and revelation as they impersonate the subjects of Corey's interviews.
As The Women, Miss Ivey's characters include the charmingly discreet translator assigned to Corey, a suavely cooperative cultural bureaucrat, and a disillusioned old-time revolutionary. Besides serving as Dooley's older self and the narrator, Mr. Garber contributes a gallery of vivid portraits, typical of which are a Czech host grappling comically with English, a cynical actor who has taken the profitable course of least resistance, and a once-great stage star driven into disgrace and madness.
Although Corey at times displays a surprising naivet'e even for an American provincial, Mr. Hadary endows him with the disarmingly sincere curiosity of a single-minded academic. The professor's ultimate realization that his proposed final chapter would endanger the very Czechs who have been so open with him brings Shue's witty and intelligent comedy to its bitter conclusion. Paul Gallo's lighting and William Ivey Long's costuming enhance the theatricalism of the production.