TEMPTATION. Play by Vaclav Havel, translated by Marie Winn. Directed by Jiri Zizka. REPEATEDLY jailed by one of communism's most repressive police states, Czech civil rights activist Vaclav Havel nevertheless continues writing plays and getting them produced - but only abroad. The New York Shakespeare Festival and the Wilma Theater of Philadelphia have joined forces to present the American premi`ere of Mr. Havel's ``Temptation,'' now on view at the Public/Martinson Hall. In this modern version of the Faust legend, Faust becomes Dr. Henry Foustka, member of an institute whose high-tech environs and assorted displays (from skeletons to two white rabbits) seem designed to camouflage its emptiness of purpose.
A secret occultist, Dr. Foustka (David Strathairn) is furtively immersed in bell, book, and candles when he receives a visit from a repulsive stranger named Fistula (played with diabolical relish by Billie Brown). Although Henry does not leap immediately at the Faustian bargain, he acknowledges that his supernatural dabblings have already enhanced his powers of eloquence. In fact, Henry's philosophical flights have captured the heart of innocent Marketa (Katherine Hiler), the institute's resident slavey.
In the course of 10 intricately plotted scenes, Mr. Havel traces the progress of Foustka's dilemma as he becomes ever more deeply involved in satanic pursuits and is regarded with increasing suspicion by his gossipy institute colleagues. Henry himself begins to believe that Vilma (Margaret Gibson), his brutally treated mistress, may be betraying his secret.
Henry's public undoing occurs at an office inquisition presided over by the institute's director (Bill Moor), whose homosexual advances Foustka had earlier rejected. The accused scientist fails to convince his colleagues that he has been using the occult rather than being used by satanic forces. Meanwhile, poor little Marketa has lost her job, attempted suicide, and suffered an Ophelia-like derangement. To celebrate Foustka's unmasking, the director proposes a victory celebration in the form of a witch's sabbath masquerade, for which designer Hiroshi Iwasaki provides bizarre costumes and the stagehands pour on the smoke.
For all its symbolism and topical allusions, Havel's sardonic attack on the inane emptiness of the regimented bureaucracy proves more wearisome than entertaining. This may be due in part to its director's preoccupations. As he demonstrated in the Wilma Theater's ``1984,'' presented here in 1987, Jiri Zizka dotes on an overload of high-tech gadgetry, visual embellishments, and sound effects provided at Martinson Hall by Jery Rojo (scenery), Jerold R. Forsyth (lighting), Adam Wernick (music), Charles Cohen (sound effects), and Jeffrey S. Brown (projection designs).
The actors must compete with the gimmickry. Under the circumstances, Mr. Strathairn manages to create a Foustka who combines the plausible with the despicable. Besides those already mentioned, the principals include Larry Block, Tanny McDonald, Joel McKinnon Miller, and Ronnie West as assorted subservient functionaries. Polite applause at the curtain call rewarded a cast whose perseverance was not the least of its virtues. After a run at the Public Theater, ``Temptation'' is scheduled to play at the Wilma for eight weeks beginning in May.