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'Concentration' Lacks Clear Focus

The Increased Difficulty of Concentration by Vaclav Havel directed by Ron Avni '97 at the Loeb Experimental Theater through December 14

The title of Vaclav Havel's "The Increased Difficulty of Concentration" alone suggests that it is a difficult play to stage, leaning heavily towards the meta-physical and absurd. The play, deeply colored with irony and deadpan humor, offers at its core a vague but haunting presentation of the meaninglessness of modern life The production of director Ron Avni '97 is an admirable attempt to capture all this frenzied complexity, but is too often overwhelmed by the scope and obscurity of the text.

Havel's play often blurs the line between fantasy and reality, weaving back and forth in time as it tells the story of the frustrated "social scientist" Dr. Eduard Huml and the women in his life. As Huml's relationships with his wife, mistress and secretary spin out of control, so does the play. Three scientists with a hypersensitive talking machine named "Puzuk" take over Huml's home to perform their nebulous experiment.

As the scientists bumble around Huml's home, Huml must juggle three women and a multitude of conflicting emotions. To avoid awkward confrontations, Huml frequently pushes a character into the kitchen or another room, so that the cast is constantly streaming in and out of doors on the futuristic set, buzzing around Huml until he can no longer retain his composure.

Huml as played by Sam Baum '98, does not particularly deserve the audience's sympathy. Baum accentuates the self-absorption and cruelly noncommittal nature of Huml's character. Throughout the play he shows utter indifference to the pain of his wife Vlasta (Kathleen Conroy '98) and his mistress Renata (Jacquie Soohen), both of whom make the apparently unreasonable demand of a faithful relationship.

Huml gives Vlasta and Renata the same smug equivocations, displaying a strong attachment to neither character. But later, Huml attacks his secretary Blanka (Agnes Dunogue '98) in an explosion of sexual frustration. All this culminates in a dream-like scene in which the three women perform a dance around Huml. According to this production of the play, much of Huml's problem lies in his inability to choose a stable life and experience genuine love.

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Some of the play's other thematic concerns--like Huml's grappling with human values--get pushed aside by this interpretative choice. The meaninglessness of the book on social theory which Huml dictates to Blanka is a vicious joke. Huml, in numerous monologues, carries on with a long string of empty statements: "Various people have at various times and in various circumstances various needs...and thus attach to various things various values." But because this production uses Huml's professional musings as nothing more than a gag, they quickly become tiresome.

Still, Baum performs the role well, alternating between Huml's callous indifference to others and his severe inner emotional struggle. The women have less character depth to convey--they exist as representations of the various sides of Huml's personality. Conroy, Soohen, and Dunogue are able to fill individual niches in the play, though, and they gather enough of the audience's sympathy to make Huml's character seem more despicable.

The play's wackiest moments involve the scientists and their temperamental machine, which they carry around carefully suspended on two poles. Puzuk is supposed to ask Huml a series of questions, but it can't perform its task. Dr. Anna Balcar (Erica Rabbit '00) and Karel Kriebel (Tinker Green) try putting Puzuk, who appears to be a hunk of gears and metal, into the freezer and into the oven in order to adjust its temperature. Nothing seems to work, and technology is represented as a useless primadonna.

The scientists provide plenty of comic relief. In addition to Anna and Kriebel, the group includes Emil Machal (Nathan Edwards '97) a surveyor who counts the stripes on Huml's wall and uses a number of strange contraptions to perform his duty. The project manager is Mr. Beck (Ian Simmons '98), who does little else but nervously march across the stage and exclaim "tomorrow I'm going fishing and that's that!" These non-sequiturs provide a nervous, inexplicable humor, but they seem to suggest more serious issues which elude this production.

"The Increased Difficulty of Concentration" is still worthwhile as a strange looking-glass view of the complexities of modern life. Although this production is unable to unify Havel's various and ambiguously presented concerns, it provides some scrambled food for thought and more than a few bizarre laughs.

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