Socialism's Failure Haunts `SLAVS!'

Tony Kushner's new play asks the question, `If the experiment did not work, what next?'

SLAVS! Play by Tony Kushner. At the Steppenwolf Theatre Company through July 31.

IN the first act of Tony Kushner's new play, ``SLAVS!,'' set in Moscow in 1985, a blind, doddering elder of the Soviet Politburo gives a passionate speech that anticipates the drama's central theme: Where is socialism headed?

Dwarfed by a gigantic red flag, Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov challenges Russia's younger reformers to come up with an alternative to the ``cold, brilliant light'' of Marxist theory.

``What beautiful system of thought have they to present to the world, to the befuddling, contrary tumult of life, to this mad swirling planetary disorganization...?'' he asks. ``Market incentives? Watered-down Bukharinite stopgap makeshift capitalism?''

Change? Yes, we must change,'' he concedes from behind dark glasses. ``Only show me the theory.... Show me the words that will reorder the world, or else keep silent.''

``SLAVS!'' is a fantastical, humorous, and yet ultimately serious political commentary on how the perversion of socialism (by dictators like Joseph Stalin) and its dilution (by Russia's architects of perestroika) have plunged the country into chaos and ruin.

Evils of Stalinism

The play probes the evils of Stalinism and the political, economic, and environmental wreckage in Russia today, ending with a question dear to the playwright's heart: How can the socialist ideal of economic justice be rescued from the debris and realized today?

``So much has been written in the last few years [stating] that because of the failure of Stalinism ... socialism as an alternative to capitalism is also gone,'' says Kushner, who recently discussed ``SLAVS!'' by telephone from his Manhattan home.

``I don't think that's true. I think there is a great deal of legitimacy in the critique socialism made of capitalism as an economic order,'' he says.

The play's broader message is that a ``grand theory,'' presumably based on democratic socialism, is needed to forestall the ``ravages'' of capitalism in Russia and around the world.

``We are crying now for the lack of one,'' Kushner says.

While all of Kushner's plays are political, ``SLAVS!'' is the first in which he addresses so pointedly his concern over the fate of socialism, a concern sparked in the mid-1970s when he was an undergraduate at Columbia University in New York. It is also the first play steeped in the Slavic culture that has fascinated him for years.

Both Kushner's political ideals and attraction to things Slavic have roots in his own Eastern European heritage. (See interview, right.)

Kushner wrote ``SLAVS!'' in just a few months at the beginning of this year, using as a starting point four scenes that were originally part of his Pulitzer Prize-winning work, ``Angels in America.''

Steppenwolf connection

Shortly after the play premiered in March at the Humana Festival of New Plays in Louisville, Ky., Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre snapped up ``SLAVS!'' Steppenwolf staged the play beginning last month in a highly successful production.

``It was unusual because the play hasn't shown yet in New York,'' says director Eric Simonson, a member of Steppenwolf's acclaimed acting ensemble. Simonson's agent, who also represents Kushner, called to propose that Steppenwolf put on ``SLAVS!''

``I read it and liked it, and Tony liked Steppenwolf,'' Simonson says. ``We had a slot available in the studio, and were able to produce the play quickly,'' he said after a recent performance of ``SLAVS!'' to a full house at the Steppenwolf's third-floor studio theatre.

``I had no trouble getting people interested in the play,'' he says.

The enthusiasm of the actors for Kushner's clever, funny, and at times almost poetical writing was evident in their energetic performance. They captured the nuance of the lively, fast-paced dialogues, which in turn kept the audience from being overwhelmed by the play's sometimes dense political discourse.

The play - set in Moscow in 1985, in Siberia seven years later, and in heaven - relates the collapse of the Soviet Union and its aftermath through the often absurd and pathetic, if sometimes well-intentioned, lives of a cast of stereotypically Slavic characters.

History of tension

As the play progresses, younger characters replace or join some of the older ones. Through their distinct personalities, the drama explores the turbulent and sometimes farcical advance of Soviet history, the tension between Russian nationalists and ethnic minorities, and the deeply mystical, superstitious strains in Slavic culture.

There is the ossified Communist Party elder Prelapsarianov, who moments before death proclaims that his ideals have been defeated because ``God ... is a Menshevik.'' There are the lesser party apparatchiks in their 50s and 60s, the most conservative of whom embraces the creed of ``geriatrical materialism.'' (``Our motto: Stagnation is our only hope. Our sacred text: silence.'')

There is a sincere, idealistic and somewhat naive woman doctor in her 30s, who prays for miracles in front of an icon bearing Lenin's face and the body of a 14th-century Russian saint. There is a security guard in her 20s, who watches on video monitors the preserved brains of deceased party leaders at the Pan-Soviet Archives for the Study of Cerebro-Cephalognomical Historico-Biological Materialism.

Finally, there is a mute eight-year-old girl, a victim of nuclear radiation, and her distraught Lithuanian mother.

In the final scene, the child, now in heaven, suggests to Prelapsarianov and another elder that perhaps socialism is ``desirable but not realizable on the earth.'' They respond by telling her a story about Lenin.

``Vladimir, who was to become Great Lenin, decided to read his brother's favorite book: a novel, by Chernyshevsky, the title and content of which asked the immortal question; which Lenin asked and in asking stood the world on its head; the question which challenges us to both contemplation and, if we love the world, to action; the question which implies: something is terribly wrong in the world, and avers: human beings can change it; the question asked by the living and, apparently, by the fretful dead as well: What is to be done?''

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