Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Leaving and The Don

Mary McCool, David Strathairn
Photo: Jim Roese
Unlike a DVD, a play can't come with its own built-in commentary track. But Leaving, the new play by the former Czech president Václav Havel, does, in a way. While director Jiri Zizka's troupe is in the middle of a dramatic moment on the stage of the Wilma Theater, a voice cuts in on a loudspeaker: "I don't know what it is, exactly, but something bothers me about this scene." It's the voice of the playwright—well, actually, the words were recorded by F. Murray Abraham—and he articulates everything from instructions ("I would remind the actors to play their parts as naturally as possible") to how much he enjoys manipulating the actors' entrances and exits. This isn't the real world, it's Havel's world, and he won't let us forget it.

Yet even without Abraham's authorial intrusions, no one would ever mistake the tableau presented in Leaving as bearing any resemblance to reality. A blend of absurdism and tragedy, Havel's first play in over two decades (translated by Paul Wilson) is about significant people, but it never takes itself seriously for a moment, and that's what makes it so much fun. And Zizka's direction gives it just the right mixture of compassion and clowning.

Dr. Vilém Rieger (David Strathairn) is the most famous man in his (unnamed) European nation—a former chancellor and a statesman respected the world over. He brags about his relationship with Tony Blair and other world leaders; at one point he observes "as Havel once told me, popularity isn't everything." Now Rieger and his family—including his mother, one of his two grown daughters, and his "longtime companion" Irena (Kathryn Meisle)—are living in a government-owned villa. Rieger's political rival Klein (Trevor Long), who has now taken power, lets Rieger know that the family can stay in the villa if Rieger agrees not to criticize the new government. That wouldn't seem to be a difficult task for the weak-willed Rieger, but things soon go awry. Rieger gives an interview to a couple of journalists, but the published interview twists his words (the press gets as much of a skewering here as the government does). Soon the family is packing up to leave, in one of several allusions to Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard; other scenes have obvious (and, in the program, acknowledged) references to King Lear and Beckett's Endgame.

While Rieger may be the protagonist, he's far from heroic. When temptation arrives, in the form of a sexy graduate student (Mary McCool) who wants more from him than just an autograph, Rieger doesn't resist. His pushy mother (Janis Dardaris) wants to maintain control of Rieger, and Irena does, too. So do his aides; one of them (Luigi Sottile) even switches allegiance to Klein in order to stay in power. And even though Klein and Rieger are political rivals, Klein's platitude-filled speeches sound a lot like Rieger's.

As Rieger, Strathairn reacts to Klein's speech the way he reacts to so many other things going on around him—with a resigned shrug. In Strathairn's beautifully underplayed performance, Rieger is dignified but befuddled, frustrated yet accepting of everything he sees. When Irena tells him "I can't respect you anymore," he just nods and says "I know." But the more ridiculous the world around him becomes, the more realistic and sympathetic Strathairn's portrayal becomes.

The seventeen actors have a lot to do, and Zizka's production gives each of them a chance to shine. Meisle is terrific as the demanding Irena, while Dardaris scores as the beleaguered mother, and Geddeth Smith brings sly dignity to the role of the family butler. Mark Cairns shows some nice comic style as Rieger's nearly wordless son-in-law, and Krista Apple maintains poise no matter what she is forced to do as Irena's friend/assistant.

The witty set by Klara Zieglerova consists mostly of a series of doors, while the lighting by Jerold R. Forsyth and sound design by Nick Rye convincingly turn the chancellor's sunny garden into a dark and stormy heath.

Not everything in Leaving works. Near the end of act two, things start to turn absurd just for absurdity's sake; there's a scene involving freeform dancing by the entire cast that overdoes its zaniness. I still haven't figured out why a bust of Gandhi keeps showing up, or why Rieger's daughter Zuzana (Victoria Frings) isn't more integrated into the plot, or why they suddenly have a man run naked across the stage. But for the most part, Leaving works remarkably well. As Rieger struggles to maintain some sense of dignity in his post-political years, he learns the hard way that there's not much dignity in his public—or private—life. And Havel makes a lot of fresh and funny observations about how those two sectors interact.

"No matter what crackpot idea I come up with," says Abraham in one of his voiceovers, "the actors will have to play it with a straight face." Leaving is full of crackpot ideas, and the wonder of it all is that so many of those ideas make sense in a brilliantly twisted way.

Leaving runs through June 20, 2010 at the Wilma Theater, 265 South Broad Street. Ticket prices range from $36 to $65 (with $10 student tickets available) and may be purchased by calling the Wilma Box Office at 215-546-7824, online at or in person at the box office.

Tom Teti and Penelope Reed
Photo: Rick Prieur

The Don, a world premiere now playing at the Hedgerow Theatre, was inspired by playwright John Wolfson's desire to examine America's anti-drug policy. Are we prosecuting the right people, or the victims? Should minor drugs be decriminalized, or taxed? When American forces come across poppy fields in foreign countries, should they leave the fields alone, or prevent the drugs from entering the United States? These are all important questions, but The Don is more interested in being entertaining than in answering them. William Roudebush's production does end up being fairly entertaining, but ends up too ambiguous to make a big impact.

We're in a rundown motel bar in a small American town on the Mexican border. An American pilot (Jim Sorensen) has been ferrying men across the border, but the pilot says that the men were American agents—or maybe they were just informers. One of those men was sneaking illegal drugs into the country, so now the pilot faces arrest. Meanwhile, an elderly doctor (Louis Lippa) shows up—he's depending on those drugs to help his patients. And then there's a young woman (Sara Painter) who unwittingly became a drug mule on a flight home from Bangkok; a teenager (Carl Smith) who is there to help the pilot, but winds up being connected to one of the other characters in an unexpected way; and the bar's proprietress (Penelope Reed), who's got a sarcastic comment about nearly everything. Into this motley crew walks the tough, intimidating and immaculately dressed Don Angelo Esposito (Tom Teti), a man who can get just about any problem solved. He comports himself like a Mafioso, but he actually hasn't been one for decades; he got out of crime, he says, "because crime was no longer respectable." Can The Don solve America's drug problem? Maybe not, but perhaps he can engineer a reasonably happy ending to the mess that all of these characters have gotten themselves into.

Wolfson's script is an odd mixture of speechifying, exposition (explaining how all these people ended up in the bar) and some agreeable comedy. Under Roudebush's direction, the performances are inconsistent; some are winning (like Teti and Reed) but some are wanting (like Sorensen, who keeps his head down and never seems comfortable as a man of action). And then there's the terrific actor Joe Guzmán, who is miscast as the dopey police official. The script is full of lines that mock Guzmán's character for being dumb, old and bald, but he never seems dumb enough, and he's certainly not old enough or bald enough. (It's telling that Wolfson felt he wouldn't be able to make his argument about the ineffectiveness of American drug policy without making the two policemen, played by Guzmán and Dave Polgar, buffoons.)

Wolfson makes some interesting points, but The Don doesn't drive them home hard enough.

The Don runs through June 5, 2010, at Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Road, Rose Valley, Pa. Tickets are $25, with discounts for seniors and children, and may be purchased by calling the box office at 610-565-4211, online at or in person at the box office.

-- Tim Dunleavy

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