Vaclav Havel once asked, "is not Franz Kafka, one of the most serious and tragic authors of this century, at the same time a humorist?" I think that whoever does not laugh when reading his novels...does not understand them." Havel's 1984 play, "Largo Desolato: A Play in Seven Scenes," presents the comic and hauntingly Kafkaesque world of Professor Leopold, a philosopher who has gotten into "trouble" for expounding on "intellectual hooliganism" in a recent treatise.
With a poisonous dose of theatrical hooliganism, the Havard-Radcliffe Summer Theater's "Largo Desolate" achieves fluency with Havel, if not with Havel's Kafka. While the stage antics often supersede the play's riveting psychological uncertainy, this intelligent and riotously satiric production, directed by Brad Rouse, articulates much of the literary intensity with which Havel composed Largo in only four days.
Adapting Havel's staging to the Loeb Ex, Rouse employs the small performance space to enhance the "stifling" claustrophobia of the living room setting. Surrounding the living room with a set of five doors, each leading to some degree of unknown or off-stage humour, the set designer (David Gammons) draws on the powerful effects of the drama's rhetorical structure to approximate the closed-in, yet exposed psyche of Leopold.
The director manages to retain much of Havel's opening, substituting effective lighting design for Havel's curtain (in the script, the opening has two false starts, each cut off by an abrupt curtain), and the dramatic opening acquaints us intimately with the chilling instability of Professor Leopold (Ian Lithgow).
Leopold has been psychologically destroyed by his work, like the man in Havel's essay, "An Anatomy of Reticence," who experiences "the first moment of deterioration...when [his] artefact, [his] project for a better world, begins to expropriate his responsibility and identify, when the abstraction ceases to belong to him and he instead begins to belong to it."
The bathrobe-clad Lithgow, who literally shivers with paranoia for much of the play, gives us a convincing portrayal of Leopold's alcoholic helpnessness and consuming self-alienation in face of the incessant fear of the unknown "they" who will carry him off to "there." Indeed, while the seven scenes of the drama all unfold in Leopold's living room, and he is the focal point of nearly all the dialogue, Lithgow for the most part persuades us that he is, as his "friend" Bertram (David Gammons) says, the "passive object" of his own life.
If Lithgow presents a Leopold acquiescent to self-destruction, Rouse demands a more complex interpretation, reading Havel's play as a study in tragic hilarity. Rouse goes a fair distance to portray the outside world from which Leopold is excluded, transforming Lucy (Jessica Walling), Leopold's unrequited mistress, into a lascivious lover who must compete with the male "friend" Bertram, for the professor's attention, and juxtaposing the confused living room existence of the actual drama with cascades off-stage laughter between Leopold's friends, Suzana (Jessica Fortunato) and Edward (Thomas Parks IV).
Harassed by Bertram, his other "fans" Sidney and Sidney (Mark Fish and Michael Stone) from the paper mill, his enemies, the two Chaps (also Fish and Stone) representing the baneful "they" and his assertive mistress, Lucy, Lithgow's Leopold is an oppressed identity whose self-imprisonment in his living room reflects a more malignant psychological incarceration in a meaningless system of language and behavior.
Gammons succeeds in becoming the drama's arch-oppressor as the pathologically smug Bertram; in a driving performance, he assaults Leopold verbally and ultimately physically, appending a quasi-sexual violence to the string of cliches he spits out. Gammons flaunts his matter-of-fact power over Leopold, crescendoing to an explosive frenzy with his own discourse; at the time Walling enters, Bertram is literally straddling Leopold, who Rouse has virtually transformed into the "passive object" of sexual, as well as intellectual interest. What Gammons' words and behavior add to the hollowed grammar of Leopard's existence, Fish and Stone, in their simple characterization of the identical Sidneys and the two chaps, uncover as farce; the disturbing familiarity of everything Leopold says (by the end, he can only regurgitate bits of Bertram's feast of platitudes) reflects in their own ridiculous repetition of words and gestures.
When Leopold alternates his paranoic pacing back and forth with trips to the medicine cabinet, we are unsure whether he runs to the bathroom to get the drugs out of his system or vomit quantities of banal expressions. The dramatic risk is that, trampled under the recylced rhetoric of the world around him, Lithgow loses the innermost psychological tension of the play. Havel's subtle development (or un-development) of Leopold's character evades Lithgow, who remains confined by the circularity of the plays gestures and language.
Havel reads extremely well in translation, and neither Tom Stoddard's English version nor Rouse's production lose the author's nascent sarcasm. Fraught with cliche, the play seems to make fun of the postmodern genre it places itself in; in Rouse's interpretation, the language surfaces with such hollow force that we can easily imagine that Leopold's books must read like the non sensical phrases of the artist/critic Mark Tansey's "Wheel."
Ultimately, if it falls short of the more profound psychodrama Havel may have been getting at, Rouse's production succeed's on a lighter plain, in the genre of self-ironic comedy.